Current Reads

Stories of the South, North, East, and West

A round-up of wonderful books about locale--the South, Hollywood, Central America, even Trochenbrod--and other topics.

Book Cover I am not a literary statistician or demographer, and am thus unqualified to assess how many women writers’ books the New York Times reviews as opposed to white men writers. And I couldn’t say what kind of review attention Algonquin Press’s wonderful story annual New Stories from the South will garner, but I am certain it is not sufficient to its yearly delights and pleasures.

As it happens, the 2010 edition, edited by Amy Hempel and Kathy Pories, marks a quarter century of these exemplary anthologies. It is overflowing with wonderful stories by knowns such as Dorothy Allison, Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, Tim Gautreaux, Padgett Powell, Ron Rash, and Brad Watson, and some as yet unknowns such as Danielle Evans, whose story Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go was one of my favorites.

Great collection. Trust me on this one.

Speaking of Southern writing, there are awards and there are awards. As it happens, the Frank O’Connor Award for short stories is a distinction that warrants acknowledgement, in the present instance because Ron Rash’s recent stories, Burning Bright, edged out a talented array of short fiction masters including T. Coraghessan Boyle. Rash, who hails from South Carolina, quotes Eudora Welty to point out: “‘One place understood helps us understand all places better,’ and that’s what I hope my work does a bit, as well… It’s up to the reader to decide.”

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The history of Hollywood and the stories of its variegated denizens is an endless source of entertainment, if not insight, into American culture. Almost certainly, the filmmakers who straddled its origins, through the Silver Screen’s golden age, are of a special cut.

The name De Mille (The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, and the Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth) resonates throughout movie history. Scott Eyman’s rigorously researched biography, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (Simon & Schuster), reaffirms his subject’s place in the Hollywood firmament, and recreates the context for what we have come to know as America’s factory of dreams.

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Book Cover London School of Economics mentor emeritus Kenneth Minogue has some provocative insights as he ruminates on what democracy means in the 21st century. Consider this:
My concern with democracy is highly specific. It begins in observing the remarkable fact that, while democracy means a government accountable to the electorate, our rulers now make us accountable to them. Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes, or drinking too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals, the ones that provoke legislation or public campaigns. We also borrow too much money for our personal pleasures, and many of us are very bad parents. Ministers of state have been known to instruct us in elementary matters, such as the importance of reading stories to our children. Again, many of us have unsound views about people of other races, cultures, or religions, and the distribution of our friends does not always correspond, as governments think that it ought, to the cultural diversity of our society. We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.
In The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (Encounter), Minogue offers up a brief for the consideration of moral issues that are far afield from the concerns of most of us, making them no less valuable or urgent in an ethically challenged epoch.

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Book Cover Ron Pen, who is the director of the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for America Music, has written I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles (University of Kentucky Press), the first biography of the influential American balladeer and poplorist.

Though relatively unknown outside purist folkie circles (his first song, titled “Go ‘Way from My Window”, was the same song that would be quoted by Bob Dylan nearly 60 years later in “It Ain’t Me Babe.”) Niles was, to be sure, an important cultural influence, both as an musical archivist and creator, and worthy of Pen’s ardent and scholarly attention.

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Cuban American writer Christina Garcia’s first novel, Dreaming in Cuban—of which the New York Times reviewer intoned, “Garcia is blessed with a poet’s ear for language, a historian’s fascination with the past, and a musician’s intuitive understanding of the ebb and flow of emotion”—is one of my favorites, which makes Garcia an author to whom I continue to pay attention.

Her fifth and newest novel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel (Scribner), throws a diverse group of travelers together in a five-star hotel in an unnamed Central American capital. A Japanese-Mexican-American matadora, an ex-guerrilla now working as a waitress in the hotel coffee shop, a Korean manufacturer with his jailbait mistress, an international adoption lawyer of German descent, a war criminal colonel, and a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a local infant are all potent ingredients for Garcia’s whimsical storytelling.

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No insult intended to past history mentors and scholars, but I have learned more useful information and insights from Gore Vidal, John Le Carre, Alan Furst, and Charles McCarry than from my high school and collegiate studies. Add another name to that list, as I have discovered much-lauded John Lawton’s ninth Inspector Troy novel, The Lilies of The Field (Grove Atlantic), set variously in Vienna, London, and New Mexico, ties immigrant/exiled musicians and physicists to an elaborate espionage scheme uncovered by the unprepossessing Scotland Yard homicide investigator Fred Troy, himself of a Russian immigrant family.

Despite my animus for series characters, Lawton has managed to avoid that authorial crutch (like Charles McCarry) by imbuing his story with such strong narrative elements. I’m so impressed I am going to dive into the Lawton oeuvre.

Stay tuned.

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Book Cover As rich a source of stories (of all stripes) as the Holocaust is, one wonders if there is a bottom, especially when many that now come to light are,dare I say, somewhat predictable. The last Holocaust-related book that I found avoided much of the dreary and harrowing affect of any Holocaust tale was Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (about which I have a two-hour conversation with Mendelsohn which I hope sees the light of day while I am still of this world).

Avrom Bendavid-Val’s The Heavens Are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod (Pegasus) tells the story of Trochenbrod, the only freestanding, fully realized Jewish town in history. Trochenbrod, which began as a tiny row of houses built on empty marshland in the middle of the Radziwill Forest, thrived for 130 years as people from all over the Ukraine and Poland came to do business, before disappearing in 1941 under the crushing advance of the Nazis.

Jonathan Safran Foer, whose Everything Is Illuminated is also about Trochenbrod, elaborates:
The Heavens Are Empty is the definitive history if this definitive place. If this book feels more fantastical than my novel, or than any novel you ever read, it is because of Trochenbrod’s ingenuity, the Holocaust’s ferocity and Bendavid-Val’s heroic research and pitch perfect story telling. This rigorously journalistic book reads at times like science fiction, at times like magical realism, at times like a thriller and always like a tragedy. You might find yourself crying at the parts that aren’t sad.

Trochenbrod was the most special place ever to have existed. Not was, is.

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Given the pretenses and contrivances used to fabricate anthologies, it is refreshing to come upon one such that both makes sense and features such a diverse array of contributors including Native American folklorists. The Illuminated Landscape: A Sierra Nevada Anthology (Heyday), edited by Gary Noy and Rick Heide (with illustrations by Joe Medeiros)includes Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Mary Austin, Wallace Stegner, Gary Snyder, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Kevin Starr, Ishmael Reed, John Muir, Walt Whitman, Jack London, Isabel Allende, and Ansel Adams.

These are essays, poetry, and stories, all written in the service of presenting the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada experience (“The Sierra Nevada is one mountain range, 430 miles long and 40 to 80 miles wide… a 25,000-square mile construction with granite cliffs as walls, wildflowers as carpet, and a star-studded sky as the ceiling”).

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Book Cover Jacques Guérin, a wealthy collector of rare books and literary manuscripts, and especially devoted to Marcel Proust, befriends the Proust family and pursues acquisition of all manner of Proustiana. Proust’s Overcoat: The True Story of One Man’s Passion for All Things Proust, by Lorenza Foschini (Ecco), tells this amusing story, which Michael Ondaatje characterizes as “A rare and wonderfully written book of literary detection, that is heartbreaking as well as thrilling, about the ‘afterlife’ of a writer’s manuscripts and the things he carried.”

No faint praise, eh?

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As a group, I have found educators to have the best grasp of social policy (followed by economists). At least, that’s what reading Paul Goodman (Growing Up Absurd), Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves To Death), and Robert Coles has taught me (The Moral Intelligence of Children). Add Canadian Henry Giroux and his two recent books, Politics after Hope and Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm Press).

Here’s why I find Giroux an interesting thinker:
If we are going to take democracy seriously, it is time for social movements, parents, unions, intellectuals and elements of the new media to address rigorously the need to contest individually and collectively this new form of racism and class inequality head on as part of a new post-civil rights struggle.This means fighting for public services, emboldening the social state, waging a cultural war in which progressive opinions and democratic values can be heard, connecting various independent struggles as part of one larger movement for a radical democracy. Central to such a struggle is the fight for ideas and power.
Or this:
Politicians now act as if a public and informed citizenry is irrelevant to politics itself. How else to explain the egregious call by Republicans for tax cuts for the rich and the cutting of social benefits for the millions of Americans who are unemployed, homeless, lack food, and are suffering unimaginable hardships. House Minority Leader John Boehner denounces the Obama administration’s $26 billion state-aid bill to save the jobs of 300,000 teachers and other public employees as irresponsible, claiming it is a “bailout to the teachers unions” (forgetting that the teachers’ unions have no love for Obama’s educational policies). At the same time, he calls for cutting the deficit and the taxes of the rich. This is a version of zombie politics where the living dead feed off the ailing, democratic polity.
Did I mention Henry Giroux is a progressive thinker?

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Vassar College mentor and polymath Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Army a Tiny Bomb (Duke University Press)—which plays on the title of Edmond Jabés’s 1993 book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book—is a kind of hybrid account of the cases of Hemant Lakhani, a 70-year-old man tried for attempting to sell a fake missile to an F.B.I. informant, and Shahawar Matin Siraj, seemingly entrapped by the New York Police Department in a terrorist conspiracy.

Needless to say, but I will, lots was left to be desired by the behavior of the apparatchiks prosecuting these case, behavior Kumar highlights and rightfully excoriates. More importantly, as Dwight Garner points out:
[Kumar’s book] carries in the crook of its own arm Mr. Kumar’s plaintive appeal. If we’re to bridge the perilous divide that separates us from those poor and unnamed people who resent us, we first need to see them, to look into their eyes. We need, Mr. Kumar writes, to acknowledge that they exist. This angry and artful book is a first step.

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Please Come Back to Me (University of Georgia Press) is a new story collection (it also includes a novella) by Emerson College mentor Jessica Treadway. Treadway’s previous tome, Absent Without Leave, won the creditable Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2009.

Lynna Williams observes:
One of the pleasures of these stories is the way in which Treadway layers them, introducing surprising characters and complications into already intriguing situations... The stories in Treadway’s second collection are memorable, affecting tales of modern domestic life.
Elizabeth Berg, who knows something about modern domestic life, opines:
Treadway writes with deep intelligence, great sensitivity, and even greater heart. These stories make a reader feel completely at home and yet continually surprised. Please Come Back To Me offers compelling material, delivered by an author who understands that truth is always richer when delivered with compassion.
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