Current Reads

Libraries of the Imagination

Grab bag for July: A dog story; more Borges; Duke Ellington; and whatever happened to Harper Lee?

Book Cover Having recently resumed my status, as Facebook would state it, of being “in a relationship,” and having adopted a three-month-old Labrador-Australian Cow Dog hybrid named Beny (about whom you will no doubt hear more about in the future), I find myself again more paying attention to the endless stream of titles devoted to ensnaring the attention of literate canine lovers. Thus, Susannah Charleson’s Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership With a Search and Rescue Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) made it into the neural fireworks that are my attention span.

As this story goes, Ms. Charleson, who had search experience, was spurred to action by a photo of a handler and his search-and-rescue dog taken in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. She volunteered with the local canine rescue team, qualified to train a dog, and adopted Puzzle, a Golden Retriever puppy who turned out to be an excellent example of the truism that every dog has a its own unique personality and, some of you will scoff, character.

Susannah Charleson and Puzzle work for the Metro Area Rescue K9 unit in Dallas, an elite volunteer canine search and rescue team. She and Puzzle share their home with six other dogs, four cats, and a fish named Sound Bite. Charleson’s story is chock-a-block full of all manner of wonderful aspects—her adventures with Puzzle and the incredible (I don’t use this word lightly) work they do are turned in an alert, unsentimental commentary on the canine-human relationship:
As we head out, I wonder what my own dog will bring to the work, to the team, and to me. I like the thought of a long drive home with a Golden snoring belly-up in the back of the car: a good dog who has worked well. A partner. A friend. After a search like this one, that companionship must take away a little of the ache.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, while a fine piece of (juvenile) literature, is additionally an amazing literary story, which is taken up by Mary McDonagh Murphy in her paean to Harper Lee’s classic, Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Collins).

Published in 1960, Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s only novel (you may remember Ms. Lee from the film Capote, where her character assisted her childhood friend Truman Capote), selling a million copies a year. Murphy takes an oral history approach (which I favor), interviewing an array of personalities such as Anna Quindlen, Tom Brokaw, Oprah Winfrey, James Patterson, James McBride, Scott Turow, Wally Lamb, Andrew Young, Richard Russo, Adriana Trigiani, Rick Bragg, Jon Meacham, Allan Gurganus, Diane McWhorter, Lee Smith, Rosanne Cash, and others gathering their reflections on the impact of Mockingbird on their lives, then and now.

Harper Lee has been famously reclusive these past 50 years, moving one of those intrepid and cheeky British reporters to recently seek out an interview—for what it is worth.

* * *

Book Cover Having succumbed to the enchantments of Jorge Luis Borges’s writing and persona as an undergraduate (I once saw him at the University of Chicago, where he, among other things, recited a chunk of Leaves of Grass that he had last read when a youth in Geneva), I recently realized it has been some time since I actually read him. Which makes recent republication important, and, of course, gives opportunity for new generations to discover the great Argentine writer.

Penguin has also recently republished five volumes of Borges: On Argentina, On Mysticism, On Writing, Poems of the Night, and The Sonnets, edited by Suzanne Jill Levine and others.

As Borges considered himself a poet, the latter two volumes, in dual language editions with parallel texts, are particularly noteworthy. Poems of the Night features more than 50 poems, such as “History of the Night” and “In Praise of Darkness”—translated by W.S. Merwin, Christopher Maurer, Alan Trueblood, and Alastair Reid—including some poems that have never appeared in English.

The Sonnets brings together for the first time in any language all of Borges’s sonnets, some also appearing in English for the first time—and rendered in English by an all-star team of translators featuring Edith Grossman, Willis Barnstone, John Updike, Mark Strand, Robert Fitzgerald, Alastair Reid, Charles Tomlinson, and Stephen Kessler.

* * *

A new monograph, Barbara Kruger (Rizzoli), written by Barbara Kruger (with contributions by Miwon Kwon, Martha Gever, and Carol Squiers), comprehensively covers 30 years of this controversial and influential artist’s career and includes some significant unpublished works and revealing spreads of Kruger’s large-scale works. It is a gorgeously reproduced tome, well-designed and providing powerful representation of Kruger’s signature adaptations of text and image.

* * *

Book Cover I get kind of a sweet buzz thinking about Duke Ellington—especially in or against the background of the hysterical noise and din thundering out of the Great American Noise and News Machine. The other day I was listening to Money Jungle, a trio album with Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, which reminded me of a wonderful slice of American life—before Facebook, smart-phones, and Glenn Beck (to name just a trio of current irritants).

The biography of a musician is far more interesting when it is rendered in the context of his/her social milieau and the historical surroundings of his/her life. I am thinking of works by Nick Tosches, Peter Guralnick, and David Hajdu. Now comes Harvey Cohen’s book, Duke Ellington’s America (University of Chicago Press), which vividly illuminates the life and times of singular American composer and cultural icon, Edward Kennedy Ellington.

Cohen’s study of an already well-acknowledged and studied life is justified by exploring new archives and presenting fresh and new interviews with a broad pastiche of Ellington acquaintances.

Cohen writes:
As Ellington stated in his autobiography, “it is always more important to know what’s happening than it is to make a living.” Being at the vortex of the music and artists that Ellington and his bandmates loved seemed to be the major pull of Manhattan. New York City formed the center of the radio, recording, and publishing industries. It boasted the best theaters and show-business personalities galore. “It was New York that filled our imagination,” Ellington recalled, listing as proof the dozens of artists that he, Greer, and Hardwicke admired when they were in their early twenties. “We were awed by the never-ending roll of great talents there … Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there.”

* * *

OK, indulge me here for a moment. A few years ago, I chatted with Adam Nicolson on the occasion of his engaging book on a solo sail through some challenging seas in the northern British Isles. The book was worthy and the conversation enjoyable. In fact, Nicolson made such a favorable impression that I took note of his latest opus, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History (Viking), which, under other, unknown circumstances, I would judge to be a silly, superfluous indulgence. The wonderful (and barely known in the USA) English novelist Howard Jacobson apparently agrees:
We are thinking about this in England at the moment, where class has returned to politics and the men of the hour are suddenly the men we supposed we had dispensed with. We had thought history had rendered them redundant, but it would seem that in our disillusionment with the self-made millionaires and bonus-driven bankers who have ruined us we have turned again to men of property and family and privileged education. Though Sissinghurst does not address this subject directly, it chimes interestingly with it. Attending to the music of the nightingale, Nicolson writes “it is as if new and old in him were indistinguishable.” It is a plea for harmonious integration to which, this very hour, the whole country is lending an ear.

* * *

I don’t know much about Laura Miller, except she has some affiliation with and she apparently has many friends in the book world; the few things I have read by her were not to my liking. Her piece, “When Anyone Can Be Published,” didn’t change my opinion, especially with her “Huh?”-producing opening sentence. So as to forgo less than generous remarks, I’ll just report and you decide:
When their former dictator, Augusto Pinochet, died four years ago, thousands of Chileans poured into the streets to celebrate—but that’s small potatoes compared to the crowds lining up to dance on the grave of traditional book publishing.
Speaking of who can publish, Tin House has an interesting twist on aiding the booksellers of America.
In the spirit of discovering new talent, as well as supporting established authors and the bookstores who support them, Tin House Books will accept unsolicited manuscripts dated between August 1 and November 30, 2010, as long as each submission is accompanied by a receipt for a book from an independent bookstore. Tin House magazine will require the same for unsolicited submissions sent between Sept. 1 and Dec. 30, 2010.
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