Current Reads

Of Ice and Men

The end of the Earth probably won't mean the end of Old Man Keillor--unfortunately.

Book Cover This seems to be the season for the publication of some of my favorite writers. (Actually, I think every season is.) Alan Furst’s 10th novel, Spies of the Balkans (Random House), quells any fears that the author might be, as they say, phoning it in. Set in Salonika, Greece, as the Third Reich begins to attend to the Balkans, the story’s protagonist is a detective with “special responsibilities”—which, of course, put him in interesting, shall we say, and irregular situations. All of which is told in fine Furstian style. And it should not go unsaid that the relationship between Costa Zanis, the policeman pressed into special service, and his beloved hound Melissa is wonderfully teased out. Not unlike the main character and his hound in Fred Busch’s North. Or the kind of intra-species bond that Jim Harrison is adept at evoking.

Thomas Perry (The Butcher’s Boy, Metzger’s Dog) is a steadfast and dependable storyteller and has a new opus, Strip (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which features a strip-club owner, a badass Mexican drug dealer, two psycho killers, and poor Joe Carver, who gets sucked into a maelstrom of havoc from which he must spend the entire narrative extricating himself. It’s all good crime-story fun, and in an odd sort of way, everybody gets what they deserve.

Don Winslow has written a handful of well-conceived novels, but had he written only The Power of the Dog, that would have been sufficient for me to continue to pay unflagging attention to his work. His new novel, Savages (Simon & Schuster), is a stylistic departure for Winslow, adapting the kind of short sentences and sentence fragments that James Ellroy featured in the final volume of his “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy (hailed as “diamond-cut prose,” or “sentences [that] are gems of concision”). An unlikely pair of drug dealers and their girlfriend, Ophelia, also known as O, are co-opted by the Baja Drug Cartel when the cartel kidnaps O, and the plot arcs to an inevitable showdown with unexpected results. Winslow is conversant with a number of cultural language games (forgive me, as in the Wittgensteinian sense) and packs a big story and a plenitude of information into this novel. Reportedly, Oliver Stone is set to make a film version.

Joseph Epstein’s (Fabulous Small Jews) sense of humor is evident from the get-go in his new collection of 14 short stories, entitled The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) If there is anything that smacks of T.S. Eliot, I missed it. What it does have is an array of stories viewing life and lifestyles from a sage and bemused point of view, with many of the characters of the age and origin of Epstein (and, might I add, myself) growing up on Chicago’s North Side in the ’60s. Epstein is well known as the author of two monographs, Snobbery and Friendship, and as a longtime editor of The American Scholar, as well as a frequent contributor to various reactionary broadsheets such as the Wall Street Journal. This new tome should add to his reputation as a well-rounded man of letters. By the way, if you can find a copy of his celebratory essay “The Kid Turns 70,” you have an excellent and useful example of Joseph Epstein’s balanced and buoyant world view.
I also grew up at a time when the goal was to be adult as soon as possible, while today—the late 1960s is the watershed moment here—the goal has become to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. The consequences of this for the culture are enormous. That people live longer only means that they feel they can remain kids longer: uncommitted to marriage, serious work, life itself. Adolescence has been stretched out, at least, into one’s 30s, perhaps one’s early 40s.
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Book Cover Even occasional readers of this space should be aware of my admiration and appreciation for that small but mighty band of publishers offering world literature in translation. Archipelago Books, one such enterprise, is the publisher of this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner, The Twin, a debut novel by Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker (translated by David Colmer).

One of the impressive aspects of this award is that the “long list” is compiled with nominations by librarians (truly unacknowledged cultural legislators) worldwide. That, and that it’s a pretty hefty prize-purse, make it something more than a normal literary bathing-suit contest.

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That publicist and marketing genius Glenn Beck has written a novel is not news. Nor is it noteworthy that it’s currently a top seller on Amazon. It is also predictable that reviewers find it inexorable. However, we must take heed that Beck has taken exception to Steven Levingston’s review and not unexpectedly misquoted it. Also, it is one of the joys of books by would-be writers like carnie-barker Beck that they evoke commentary such as:
Thrillers often are marred by laughable prose, but few have stumbled along with language as silly as this one… The suspense of The Overton Window comes largely from wondering when the thrills will begin. There’s the obligatory prologue murder, but then the pulse of this novel flatlines. In place of thrills, we get entire chapters in which characters lecture on the rightness of their viewpoints… The danger of books like this is that radical readers may take the story’s fiction for fact, or interpret the fiction—which Beck encourages—as a reflection of a reality that they must fend off by any means necessary.

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Am I the only person in America who is resistant to Garrison Keillor’s charms? No need to answer. As I am not part of his audience for A Prairie Home Companion, I occasionally stumble across his writing; I think I have even read one of his so-called novels—which was eminently forgettable. Thus I am, shall we say, limited in my awareness of him.

Recently during the book publishing industry’s annual hoedown in Manhattan known as B.E.A. (which my regional agoraphobia prevents me from attending), the New York Times published an exhortation by Keillor entitled “The End of an Era in Publishing.” Let me know if you think this funny or clever or useful or memorable:
Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And the New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, will vanish (POOF) whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light”—NY Times). And editors will vanish.
One enterprising journalist, Judy Berman, followed up Keillor’s declinist regurgitation by polling a random sample of her acquaintances for reactions. Highly-regarded book person Maud Newton points out:
Writers of books will always need good editors. Self-publishing is not a new phenomenon. Cf. Benjamin Franklin. Yes, publishing will change, but it will also continue to exist. And so, unfortunately, will ill-informed kids-these-days rants like this one.
And once and future book publisher Richard Nash nails it (so to speak):
Culture doesn’t need publishing. Culture needs writers and readers connecting with one another. Publishing’s alleged demise is a problem only to the extent that publishing was doing a good job connecting writers and readers. But recent and current publishing was mostly in the bookstore supply business, only tangentially the writer-reader connection business. If the demise of the bookstore supply business pushes more talented editors, curators, and taste-matchers into the reader-writer connection business, our culture will be vastly improved by the demise of publishing as we had known it.
Again, let me know if you think Keillor’s view of publishing is funny or clever or useful or memorable. Really. You know I don’t.

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Book Cover Some time ago I noted Tristram Stuart’s tome Waste, which, among other things, was informative of the so-called “Freegan” movement—also known as dumpster diving. Now Jake Halpern (Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction), who has evidenced a keen nose for interesting stories in his books, recently held forth in a revealing feature in the New York Times Magazine, “The Freegan Establishment,” which offers:
One main gripe that freegans have with American society is just how much food we waste. In his book “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal,” Tristram Stuart writes that American households, retailers and vendors waste about 40 million tons of food each year. Stuart, who is also an activist, does not identify himself as a freegan. “What I want to do is end the possibility of freeganism because I want the whole food business to stop the waste that makes freeganism possible in the first place,” he told me. Stuart says that freeganism serves a purpose, because it draws attention to a problem, but it does not offer the solution. And this observation reveals a quandary inherent in the freegan movement. Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.
There you go.

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Book Cover The environmental debacle that is the British Petroleum-caused oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has occasioned trillions of weight measures of information—some of which must be useful data, right? Here’s a rumination from Gretel Ehrlich, No Escape: A Statement About the Gulf Oil Spill (not yet published), which concludes:
Our eyesight has become so dim, we cannot see all that is around us and our place within it. To see is to stop. Have we forgotten how? Too many of us have lost the scent of wildness and have applied linear thinking to a circular universe. We cannot conceive of a “we” that is not the center of attention and the repository of world power, that would willing exchange economic know-how for ecological knowledge. We need to develop a more generous attitude toward all that is wild around us. Our collective wound of being “too early weaned from the breast of the earth,” is enacting its revenge: we willingly despoil the Earth whose unruly embrace we so crave.
By the way, Ehrlich was recently awarded the Henry David Thoreau Prize For Literary Excellence in Nature Writing, whose award citation read:
This year’s prize will be given to author Gretel Ehrlich in recognition of her exceptional talents as a nature writer who expresses in poetry and prose the grandeur and loneliness of natural settings—in Wyoming and the ice fields of northern Greenland—and tells of the quietly heroic lives of subsistence hunters in Greenland and elsewhere in the Arctic.
Gretel Erlich has left an ample trail of wonderful writing and exploration, and has recently published In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape (National Geographic), her account of her various original circumnavigations of the Arctic Circle. A student and mentor of what she terms the “ecology of culture,” Gretel amasses a despairing account of climate change’s effects on the Arctic’s indigenous cultures. Consider this: the polar ice cap’s shelf was, until recently (in geological terms), up to 14 feet thick; it is currently seven inches.

Happily, I can report that my recent conversation with Gretel Ehrlich (occasioned by her recent trip to Cambridge) should be available here this summer.

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If the Paris Review and its archive of author interviews are claimed to be the DNA of literature, then what to call the Key West Literary Seminar’s Audio Archives? Just asking.
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