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Book Digest: September 18, 2006

High 5ive; Best New American Voices 2007; Mixed; Nicole Kidman; Peace Mom; Watching the World Change; Johnny Cash, The Biography

President Bush’s press conference of Sept. 15 should be noted as a landmark of sorts, as he continued to use the presidential bully pulpit to elevate public discourse and educate the American people in what appears to be the New Logic:
Question: Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, former Secretary of State Colin Powell says the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. If a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and former secretary of state feels this way, don’t you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you’re following a flawed strategy?
Bush: If there’s any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it’s flawed logic. I simply can’t accept that. It’s unacceptable to think that there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective, Terry.
Interesting slight of hand, no? To distort an opponent’s position and then call it flawed logic. Certainly anyone challenging George Bush’s intelligence or his powers of reasoning would have to explain this shrewd tactic. As I recall in Frank Rich’s new tome The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Rich asserts that Bush’s arrogance stems not from his challenged intelligence, which is a favored view of his opponents, but from Bush’s presumption that others are stupid.

This being a political season, it’s difficult to get away from the wearying affairs of state and governance—which I want to point out is part of an ailment that good books can effectively mitigate, if not cure. Yup, that’s what I think, and it puts me in mind of one of Lewis Lapham’s closings from a Harper’s essays, where he quoted this from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King:
The best thing for being sad…is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.
High 5ive: An Anthology of Short Stories from Ten Years of Five Points edited by Megan Sexton
While reading this page of late, you may have noticed that this is a season of literary anthologies, from expected (Best American Series, New Stories from the South, etc.) and unexpected places (see below). Georgia State University’s department of English and creative writing program have just published an anniversary anthology of Five Points, its literary journal. This commemorative tome found its way to me because Megan Sexton and I have a shared love of the writing of the late Fredrick Busch (with whom I had spoken five or six times in 10 or 12 years), which is a grand reason indeed. In any case, the 19 stories included here features such household names as Ha Jin, Alice Hoffman, Robert Olen Butler, Madison Smartt Bell, and two of the three Anns—Hood and Beattie (but not Tyler).

Best New American Voices 2007 edited by John Kulka and Natalie Danford, guest edited by Sue Miller
Recognize any of these names? Alice J. Marshall, Ellen Litman, Lydia Peelle, Yiyun Li, M. O. Walsh, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Caimeen Garrett, Fatima Rashid, Kevin A. González, Anne de Marcken, Robert Liddell, Ryan Effgen, Keya Mitra, Dan Pope, or T. Geronimo Johnson? How about these? Julie Orringer, Adam Johnson, William Gay, David Benioff, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Maile Meloy, Amanda Davis, Jennifer Vanderbes, and John Murray? The former are included in this, the seventh and newest edition of Best American Voices. The latter are some of the wonderful young writers, included in previous editions of the anthology, who have gone on to gain some manner of praise and recognition. Sue Miller, who is this edition’s guest editor, astutely observes:
…There is not any longer that sense in the world of writing and publishing of a way to do it. A kind of balkanization of the short story has occurred—as better paying short story venues dry up. As the New Yorker has moved into new territory editorially, as quite disparate “little magazines” have taken over the publishing of most of the work in this form. The result of all the changes is that the American short story has changed, has become multifarious, stranger and richer.
And this key point—and a valid response to anti writing program grousing:
And as writing programs have sprung up all over the country and the nature of their population has changed—many more students of diverse ethnic backgrounds and many older students, who have indeed been out in the Real World for awhile—the writing produced by these programs have been less responsive to any particular aesthetic.
Truly.

Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience edited by Chandra Prasad
“Cultural diversity” and “multiculturalism” would be empty and useless phrases—buzzwords—if it weren’t for the fact that there are at least 20 million people in the U.S. who answer to a clear mixed-race designation and, more to the point, if they hadn’t written so creatively and elegantly on their experience(s). Danzy Senna, Cristina Garcia, Diana Abu-Jaber, Rebecca Walker, Peter Ho Davies, Mary Yukari Waters, Lucinda Roy, Ruth Ozeki, and Wayde Compton are among the 18 writers found in this original anthology compiled by editor Chandra Prasad, whose own first novel is expected to be published in 2007.

Nicole Kidman by David Thomson
I have had the great pleasure of speaking with cultural historian, teacher, novelist, and film critic David Thomson a couple of times, and on the most recent occasion we talked about the blossoming of Nicole Kidman as an actress, based on her work in The Human Stain, Birthday Girl, and Cold Mountain (which he attributed to her having shaken off one Tom Cruise). So it should not surprise me that Thomson has written this book—though there is a very interesting project he has been putting off since he mentioned it a few years ago, which you will have to discover for yourselves. You can count on this book on Kidman to avoid the fawning, hagiographic approach or the so-called tell-all (all what?) so favored by movie star biographers. The author of three editions of the critically lauded canonical Biographical Dictionary of Film, Thomson is a clear and original thinker and an illuminating prose stylist. Whatever you learn about Ms. Kidman will no doubt be enhanced tenfold by what you learn about the entertainment culture where she has managed to thrive creatively. So read this new opus by David Thomson. Anything he writes is worth the read, for sure.

» Read an excerpt from Nicole Kidman

Peace Mom: A Mother’s Journey Through Heartache to Activism by Cindy Sheehan
Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in service of the U.S. Army in 2004, is no doubt a looney, lefty (“I will spend my life trying to make Casey’s sacrifice count for peace and love, not killing and hate.”) peacenik. At least that’s the way the alert American press corps has tried to portray her. Who else would park themselves outside the summer White House seeking a meeting with the vacationing commander in chief? However, no one who has not experienced the Unbearable, the Unimaginable—the loss of one’s child (need I add “in the questionable circumstance of the Iraq War”) should be making any thoughtless judgments about Sheehan. Can she write? Is her book about anything we need to know? Good and appropriate questions—see if any of the book pages in newspapers across the country are asking them. One thing for sure, Cindy Sheehan is no Ann Coulter.

» Read an excerpt from Peace Mom

Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 by David Friend
How is it possible, five years later, to hear “9/11” and not involuntarily cringe or exhibit some other pathological response—whatever or however one thinks one feels about that eternal moment is much wrapped up with the uses made of it by a variety of political and cultural players (as in both actors and competitors). For me, the relentless noise created by a faux news culture has engendered a sort of fatigue around the Twin Tower bombings that has almost rendered them meaningless—one obvious byproduct of a culture without silence, pause, or modulation.

This very original book by David Friend—who, as it happens, is formerly Life’s director of photography and who won an Emmy award for the documentary 9/11—selects 50 from the countless images available about 9/11 and tells their stories via the people who created them. Robert Stone as usual nails it:
A reader can only bear witness to the tenderness and wisdom at the core of this book, which distinguish it throughout. David Friend’s passionate sympathy engages the reader without relenting. Just about all the observations that might be sought from the events of that day are here: victims, survivors in every sense, responders. Loss, pride, a helix of sorrow and shame along the meridians of the world. Along with its records of grief, Watching the World Change celebrates the courage to go on, which may be the most admirable and irreplaceable of human virtues.
Johnny Cash, The Biography by Michael Streissguth
I always have loved that line from “Folsom Prison Blues”: “…I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” On the live recording, it stirs an appreciative murmur from the audience of convicts, and for me it opened a window onto the eloquent directness of Cash’s vision. Johnny Cash’s biopic Walk the Line no doubt served to endear him, perhaps even lionize him, to us, but as these things go it also served to gloss over the complexities and darker realities of Cash’s long and productive life. Oddly, this is the first critical biography of Cash—depending on how you account for Stephen Miller’s Johnny Cash: The Life of an American Icon—since the ‘70s, and as such it illuminates the dark corners of the troubled musician’s life, in the end making Johnny Cash worthy of his stature as a American cultural icon.

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