Book Digest: September 4, 2006

The Lost; All Aunt Hagar's Children; Thomas Paine; The Punishment of Virtue; Ploughshares; The Quotable Jefferson; The Greatest Story Ever Sold; Glimmer Train No. 60; The Believer No. 36; Things As They Are; Death Do Us Part

Journalism being what it is—it seems driven by lists and so-called service features and other banalities—there have been occasions when I have been tempted to stoop to such, and on this day I can no longer resist. I hope against all hope that this assemblage makes some (more) sense than that and doesn’t put me in the company of the pack of vulgarians that infest the once-honorable profession. Anyway, here, in advance of the regular notices, is a list of some books that I believe have received insufficient attention—I swear by them. If any of them fail to move you or whatever you expect a good book to do, well then, consign me to the dustbin of history.
  • The Sixth Lamentation by William Brodrick
  • The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow
  • Valley of Bones by Michael Gruber
  • A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr
  • A Chance Meeting by Rachel Cohena
  • Articles of War by Nick Arvin
  • Miss Kansas City by Joan Frank
  • Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
  • One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash
  • The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
  • What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
  • I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn
Daniel Mendelsohn, whose articulate and elegant criticism has at one time or another graced the pages of various New York-based magazines (but is best represented at the New York Review of Books) has finally, after five years of work, published his amazing hybrid of a book about six members of his family who were lost in Poland during the Holocaust. Among the remarkable things he has accomplished is having written a book set in that harrowing, well-trod terrain that is not a Holocaust book. As was apparent in his first opus, The Elusive Embrace, Mendelsohn’s protean intellect evidences remarkable mojo on any subject his mind wishes to examine. In The Lost, he weaves a tapestry of his family’s past and present with biblical exegesis, classic scholarship, Jewish history, and plain, old-fashioned detective work to create his narrative. One of the many ideas that Mendelsohn nails is worth quoting here:
There is so much that will always be impossible to know but we do know that they were, once, themselves specific, the subjects of their own lives and deaths and not simply puppets to be manipulated for the purpose of a good story for the movies and magical realist novels and movies. There will be time enough for that once I and everyone who ever knew everyone who ever knew them dies; since as we know, everything, in the end, gets lost.
Also, I interviewed Mendelsohn for a web site launching in the middle of the month, so you might want to look for that if this subject compels you.

All Aunt Hagar’s Children by Edward P. Jones
When, in 2004, I read Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which was 12 years in the making, I was amazed and all those wonderful things that follow from encountering a book that you fall deeply in love with. And Jones’s personal story is also compelling—which is why it seemed so right that he won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and last but certainly not least a MacArthur Fellowship for his extraordinary work. Though I doubt very much that Jones’s new story collection will want for review attention (part of the raison d’etre for this space), I note it in case you are one of the rare enlightened souls who find out about books in original and offbeat ways. All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones’s second story collection (Lost in the City was the first), contains 14 stories, all set in Washington, D.C., and five of which were first published in the New Yorker. Interestingly, David Hellman writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, warns:
These are long and rigorously developed stories that have a craftsman quality about them, where, astonishingly, almost every character is well defined to almost perfect pitch. And while the stories steer clear of too much literary gamesmanship, they are demanding to read. Jones obviously wants his readers to pay attention and work along with him. Often the stories are confusing when they begin, moving about in time and frame of reference, and usually coming to complete clarity only when you read them again. But in this instance, it is a call for us to pay attention and relish the intricacies, to pay attention and think.
Another way of putting this is that Jones is writing serious work that will reward you if you pay serious attention—which is as it should be, no?

» Read an excerpt from All Aunt Hagar’s Children

Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations by Craig Nelson
Let’s just put it down to one of those quirks of history that despite being a founder of both the United States and the French Republic and the author of three 18th-century bestsellers—The Rights of Man, The Age of Reason, and of course, Common Sense—Thomas Paine is the least well known and apparently, the least appreciated of the American founding fathers. Happily (well, it makes me happy) this historiographical glitch is being corrected. Recently Paul Collins’s The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, though an oddity, began to dust off Paine’s proper historical place. Now comes Nelson’s well-researched portrait of this exemplar of the Enlightenment, who famously asserted that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” Which they did. I am told that he inestimable Christopher Hitchens is also at work on a Thomas Paine biography. It’s all good.

The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban by Sarah Chayes
Afghanistan is an endlessly interesting country of which we Americans seem to be amazingly ignorant. From the mythology of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King to the illuminations of Saira Shah’s The Storyteller’s Daughter, Jon Lee Anderson and Thomas Dworzak’s The Lion’s Grave, and Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, there seems to be serious failure to take in what this culture is all about. And in terms of saving Afghanistan from the bad guys, it puts me in mind of another country we claimed as a protectorate but ended up screwing in the end: Nicaragua. But that’s another story. Sarah Chayes left her job as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio to work for a humanitarian organization founded by Qayum Karzai, the brother of the president of Afghanistan. This book is her account of her four years working closely with all the major players in this tragedy, as tribal strongmen have replaced the Taliban but not ended the depredations visited upon the proud people of this beknighted nation. As in Nicaragua and elsewhere, U.S. complicity suggests, with friends like the U.S., who needs enemies?

Ploughshares: Fall 2006, guest edited by Ron Carlson
One of the joys of receiving Ploughshares is reading the guest editors’ introductions to the issues they have edited. (I wonder if there is a potential anthology here.) Ron Carlson’s fine and amusing introduction is no exception. He claims there are nine answers to what makes a good story and launches into one of them, wherein he describes spending an exhausting day building a catch-basin water system with a friend at some remote hunting cabin. As he completes this arduous task, he discovers an old green set of Harvard Classics and picks one up. “I picked up a book. I won’t say which one. It was the feeling I remember, the weight of the book in my hands and the weight of the lamplight. I have never known such a tangible pleasure of reading as I did that long night.” It’s as fine a story as you would want to read and additionally exhibits his claim. Whatever the other eight answers might be by the end of said introduction, you have been treated to a good story. This issue includes among others, stories by Amy Bloom, Gish Jen, Alan Cheuse, Ann Hood, and Pam Houston. Also, while this is Ploughshares’ hundredth issue in its 35th year, other than Ron Carlson’s passing mention, there is none of the usual trumpeting, branding, and chest-beating, which is quite wonderfully remarkable—after 35 years, a reticence to beat the drum. You gotta love that.

The Quotable Jefferson, collected and edited by John P. Kaminski
If there is an American who is more quotable and apparently more quoted than Thomas Jefferson, I am not aware of it, and this handy tome does go some distance to reify his stature. A few of my favorites:
[Frenchmen] have as much happiness in one year as an Englishman in 10.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.

On legislative delay: “How can expedition be expected from a body which we have saddled with an hundred lawyers, whose trade is talking?”

As to myself, I love peace, and I am anxious that we should give the world still another useful lesson, by showing to them other modes of punishing injuries than by war, which is as much a punishment to the punisher as to the sufferer.
Apparently this tome is the first to give Jefferson’s citations a context with an introduction, a chronology, an appendix, and a source for each quote. Me, I’m looking forward to many chances to impress friends new and old with my erudition, as I quote old Tom at the drop of the proverbial hat.

The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich, read unabridged by Grover Gardner
Having been moved by the book iteration of theater-critic-turned-cultural-pundit-turned-political-columnist Frank Rich’s indictment of the pack of liars and their lies that is the George Bush-Dick Cheney regime (though Rich coyly refuses to explicitly use the L-word), I found listening to seasoned narrator Grover Gardner’s reading of the same a worthy enhancement of this singular story. It has been interesting and rewarding to follow the blossoming of Rich as an incisive voice in the frequently stultifying and somnambulant public conversation of the vital issues of this political moment. And it will be interesting to watch the response to Rich’s brief against the “propaganda presidency” in the context of polarized American politics. Rich essentially argues that 9/11 provided the current White House with “an opportunity and a mandate” that it used to “amass power and hold on to it.” Leave it to Rich to actually provide humor and adroit analysis to the body of fictions that the Bushists manufactured. I eagerly await the public and press reaction to this important book—which will be its own story.

Glimmer Train No. 60, Fall 2006
Per usual for a “small” literary magazine, I recognize only a few author names in the new Glimmer Train, namely Steven Dixon and Michelle Richmond, which in my mind means that Susan and Linda, the magazine’s editors, are doing their jobs. There are two items of special interest to me. One is the preface:
August 29 will mark one year since Hurricane Katrina plowed into Louisiana and Mississippi. We have a number of subscribers and authors in New Orleans and over the past year we’ve had an opportunity to correspond with a few of them. On Day 100 one of our subscribers told us about the seven a.m. bathrobe brigade. Just a few houses in her neighborhood had gas restored at that point, and so those lucky people made copies of their house keys for their neighbors to let themselves in and shower each morning, a steady trail of bathrobes and flip flops and towel turbaned herds. It’s only one story but it’s a powerful picture of trust and generosity. We dedicate this issue to those who lent a hand and to those who needed one, which in the course of any given day can be one and the same person.
In the same issue, Sioban Dowd writes in “Silenced Voices” of Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a veteran Mexican journalist who in the course of writing to expose child pornography rings (and involvement of corrupt government officials) was charged with criminal libel (in itself a legal travesty) by one of the alleged conspirators, subjected to at the least questionable treatment by the authorities and targeted by a steady barrage of death threats. If you are moved by this outrage (as I was) you may find out more at Reporters Without Borders.

» Read an excerpt from Glimmer Train No. 60

The Believer No. 36, August 2006
One thing that you can say about the Believer is that there is no other magazine quite like it. Among other things, it has no advertisements. Not even from writing programs, small presses, or other so-called literary magazines. And the design and content most certainly walk a path apart from that followed by other periodicals that attach themselves to the increasingly marginalized world of literature. August’s issue featured a number of stand-out items—Oscar Villalon, the book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, converses with the ubiquitous Latino-Jewish public intellectual Ilan Stavans about guess what; Vendela Vida interviewed this week’s it novelist Jennifer Egan; there’s an interview with director Steven Soderbergh; and Jenny Davidsoncompels with her piece on the very interesting Five Flights Up and Other New York Apartment Stories by Toni Schlesinger; and Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree—the only writing of his I find interesting. Anyway, lots of good stuff here.

Things As They Are, with essays by Mary Panzer and Christian Caujolle
If one imagines that each book contains a universe, the heavenly body represented in this magnificent tome, with its 500 four-color images, displayed in their original contexts, begs taxonomy. Fifty years’ worth of news is divided into five sections, represented by 120 feature articles, exhibiting the photography of masters such as James Nachtwey, Henri Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards, Steve McCurry, Nan Goldin, and Sebastian Salgado, and on and on. Assembled under the auspices of World Press Photo this exhibition-in-book is presented as “the first truly world history of photojournalism.” But as with many wonderful things, the unintended consequence is as fine appendix to world history of the last half century—if I were teaching history, this book would definitely be on my syllabus.

» Read an excerpt from Things As They Are

Death Do Us Part edited by Harlan Coben
Since I am a Dutch Leonard, George Pelecanos, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas Perry, Chuck Hogan, Michael Connelly, Don Winslow, Michael Gruber kind of guy, there are vast areas of the so-called crime genre that I am ignorant of—which is why there is great value in an anthology such as this one, 18 stories by the likes of Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, P.J. Parrish, Ridley Pearson, R.L. Stine, Jim Fusilli, Jeff Abbott, Charles Todd, and Tom Savage. A kind of Whitman’s sampler of crime stories, yes?

» Read an excerpt from Death Do Us Part

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