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Reading

Book Digest: September 25, 2006

The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820; A Life in Secrets; All Governments Lie; Conservatize Me; The Secret Powers of Naming; Concerning the Spiritual in Art; Best American Essays 2006

Based on the drumbeat of enthusiastic notices it seems that the book of the moment is critic/scholar Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost. Good news indeed (I will have something to add to the choir in due time), as this is a wonderful non-Holocaust, Holocaust book (read the reviews to unpack this) that covers a wide swath of Mendelsohn’s personal history, biblical explications, and some classical ruminations. As I considered this state of affairs in an infrequent moment of self-examination, I noticed that I may have succumbed to a recently discovered syndrome whereby I pay inordinate attention to American nonfiction. This is purely accidental and I would expect the pendulum to swing the other way. Though I might say that it’s less complicated to talk about nonfiction—as I was looking over the positive notices of le Carré’s The Mission Song, I could not explain my own lack of enthusiasm for it. Though I must add that I admire le Carré’s continued attention to the seemingly insoluble, be-knighted continent of Africa.

I was ecstatic to receive an advance copy of Jim Harrison’s forthcoming novel (Jan. 2007), and thought of this from the Old Geezer’s wonderful memoir, Off to the Side:

One of the most frequent comments I hear everywhere, right up there with “what’s for dinner” and “I want to be somebody” is “I don’t have time to read,” which is essentially telling you, a lifelong writer, that your profession is below that of communal spritzers and flossing, and frequent social ass scratching. Everyone has to learn over and over that at best, time is seized and then you flee.

Amen.

The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820 by Joseph J. Rishel with Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt
If you live in Philadelphia, Mexico City, Los Angeles, or London you will have the opportunity to see this opulent exhibition containing an impressive selection of over 450 works from the decorative arts, furniture, textiles, silver, sculpture, and painting that flourished in Latin America up to and through the independence movement. Assembled under the leadership of Joseph J. Rishel, senior curator of European Painting at Philadelphia Museum of Art and art scholar Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, this tome is chock-a-block full of essays by experts in the fields represented. As one review asserts:
…no single exhibition can account completely for the cultural crazy quilt devised by the various peoples of Latin America in the three centuries between Cortez’s arrival and the onset of the independence movements of the early 19th century. You can only absorb what you can from each endeavor and hope that, with luck, others equally splendid will occur until this amazing epoch is brought definitively into view.
Which, no doubt, gives the book an advantage over the exhibition.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII by Sarah Helm
Some nonfiction reads as vividly as spy fiction—such is the case with British journalist Sarah Helm’s able biography of Vera Atkins, who as part of the Special Operations Executive, Britain’s WWII secret service, organized anti-Nazi resistance in occupied countries, mainly France. She ran nearly 400 agents and after the war conscientiously tracked down what happened to nearly 100 missing agents. Atkins, who died in 2000 (and was spoken of as the model for Ian Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny), lived a life shrouded in mystery (as befitting a top spook)—even to her own family. Thus the challenge was set high for Helm, who here offers a diligent inspection of officials and full access to Atkin’s private papers. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (who is heroic in her own way) says Helm’s work “…lays bare the truth about WWII’s heroic spymistress, Vera Atkins, and uncovers a story of betrayal, deceit, and unusual bravery at the heart of the secret army. Yet again it has taken meticulous investigative reporting to reveal the horrific realities of war.”

» Read an excerpt from A Life in Secrets

All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone by Myra MacPherson
“All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out,” opined I.F. Stone. I grew up reading Izzy Stone’s Weekly (1953-1971) during an era when journalism was not rife with careerists interested only in having lunch and writing from press handouts. Stone made a career of righteous journalistic skepticism in part by simply reading and questioning the minutes of legislative committees and other government bureaucracies. Which earned him a hallowed and permanent place on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s shit list. He was the first journalist to attack the veracity of the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext, and late in life penned the illuminating and—surprise—best-selling The Trial of Socrates. Myra MacPherson, no slouch as a journalist herself, spent 15 years researching this book—including reviewing Stone’s 5,000-page FBI file. Not only does this book do justice to the life and work of an admirable man, it most certainly resonates in an era of a supine and recumbent 4th estate.

» Read an excerpt from All Governments Lie

Conservatize Me by John Moe
This work does not rise to the level of something I’d want to read but such are John Moe’s pungent insights (frequently to be found at McSweeney’s and NPR’s Weekend America) that I welcome this opportunity to audit him. The premise is promising—Seattlite Moe, scion of left-leaners, sets out to determine if his political beliefs were nature or nurture or something else. Thus he puts himself on a strict conservative regimen:
He resets his radio dials from NPR to Rush Limbaugh, goes head-to-head with some of today’s most influential conservative thinkers for a series of “conversion sessions,” makes pilgrimages to the Ronald Reagan and Richard M. Nixon museums, spends the Fourth of July in the most Bush-friendly county in the country, attempts to set his inner Charlton Heston loose at a gun range, flies cross-country to be nearer to Toby Keith, and test-drives the type of massive gas-guzzling SUV so feared and loathed by liberals (and becomes uncomfortably fond of it).
Funny stuff. [And awfully reminiscent of an experiment Oliver Griswold tried in these pages in 2004—ed]

The Secret Powers of Naming by Sara Littlecrow-Russell
As the calendar winds into the winter months—a closed-in, claustrophobic season—I find myself looking for visions from wide-open spaces with endless horizons. Reading public interest lawyer and Sara Littlecrow-Russell was like coming outside after a big storm, the air clear and the light bright. Jo Harjo writes in her introduction:
These are not poems of constructed or beautiful images nor are they poems of redemption. There is scarce mystical panache. What you will find is hard hitting, wise witness to these times at the beginning of the 21st century here in Indian country, where everything is as it seems, no matter how outrageous. There is no magical realism here: we are human beings in the rough who manage to shine once in a while in the light of self deprecating humor as we dance colorfully…
Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky, translated by Michael T.H. Sadler with a new introduction by Adrian Glew
Wassily Kandinsky was one of the most influential painters of the 20th century and this treatise is widely recognized as (or at least claimed to be) an essential document of Modernist art theory. Honestly, I am not the one to judge such a claim or one by critic John Golding that “this is possibly one of the most influential single statements to have been produced by any 20th century artist.” Kandinsky’s prose, however, is catchy:
And so the arts are encroaching one upon another, and from a proper use of this encroachment will rise the art that is truly monumental. Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid which will some day reach to heaven.
Michael Sadler’s authoritative translation has been available since its original publication in 1914, and now appended to Kandinsky’s text is the correspondence between the translator and the artist. The letters are from the archives of Tate Britain, and are provided for the first comprehensively annotated edition of this landmark tome with 10 woodcuts and 11 halftones. It should also be noted that artWorks includes some notable texts such as the Futurist Manifestos and Appolinaire on Art, Stieglitz’s Memoir, Paul Gauguin’s letters, and Andre Breton’s Surrealism and Painting.

» Read an excerpt from Concerning the Spiritual in Art

The Best American Essays 2006 guest edited by Lauren Slater
As I mentioned last week, this is the time of year when anthologies proliferate. This new entry (the 12th volume in the series) contains 20 selections from names both familiar and otherwise: Laurie Abraham, Poe Ballantine, Emily Bernard, Ken Chen, Toi Derricotte, Joseph Epstein, Eugene Goodheart, Adam Gopnik, Kim Dana Kupperman, Michele Morano, Susan Orlean, Sam Pickering, Robert Polito, David Rieff, Oliver Sacks, Peter Selgin, and Alan Shapiro. And as this year’s guest editor Lauren Slater writes, the pieces cover diverse subjects “from birthing to dying and all business in between. They reflect the best of what we, as a singular species, have to offer, which is reflection in a context of kindness. The essays tell hard-won tales wrestled sometimes from great pain.”

» Read an excerpt from The Best American Essays 2006

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