Book Rate Digested Book Reviews: January/February 2004

A digested book "review": cheap shots, glib commentary, shameless advocacy of insidious ideology of social and economic justice and idiosyncratic and totally arbitrary choices of books that come our way via our gallant and steadfast UPS drivers and other routes. Also, this is for 1) people who don’t want to shell out two hundred dollars for a subscription to Publisher’s Weekly 2) Book lovers who are averse to reading reviews 3) Readers who are not incited to mouth foaming at the mere mention of Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo and most importantly 4) for people who trust us.


Note: (RB) = Robert Birnbaum; (RLW) = RL Whalen; (JT) = Janice Tsai; (MB) will someday equal Matt Borondy; and soon enough there will be other abbreviations to deal with. Links go to

Maggie Darling : A Modern Romance – James Howard Kunstler (323 PP, Grove Atlantic)

James Howard Kunstler, (The Geography of Nowhere) who has an eye and ear for the unintentional ironies and anomalies of contemporary life, assembles a madcap, screwball, modern comedy of manners with a Martha Stewart-like Maggie Darling at the center—though as Janet Maslin points out, "… he draws on enough recognizable detail to qualify Maggie Darling as a roman à clef, much of it is fancifully scrambled: for instance, an affair between Maggie and a Sting-like British heartthrob who uses the word ’tis in conversation. Their romance disintegrates after he starts calling her Mum." This is not the kind of book that normally captures my attention. But such are Kunstler’s narrative skills and his perceptive social commentary as evidenced in his previous eleven books (eight novels and three non-fiction) —as well as journalistic forays in the New York Times Magazine (and the fact that he put the book in front of me)—that I would have felt derelict not to give note of this, his latest work. (RB)

Best New American Voices 2004
ed. by John Casey (306 PP, Harcourt)

This annual probably is most useful to ambitious fledgling literary agents looking to make their bones by signing the previously anonymous to stupendous and career-threatening advances. Since its inception in 2000, David Benioff, William Gay, Ana Menedez, Maile Meloy, Amanda Davis, Jennifer Vanderbes and Timothy Westmoreland have had their early work published in this anthology. And the proliferation of writing programs and workshops almost require that there be new venues to showcase the work of worthy unknowns. While the writers are, as they say in sports journalism, “no names,” the guest editors rank among the best writer/teachers in the land: Tobias Wolff, Charles Baxter, Joyce Carol Oates and now John Casey. (RB)

Gauguin Tahiti – George Shackelford and Claire Freches-Thory (371 PP MFA Publications)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows works from painter Paul Gauguin’s terminal period in Tahiti, and this compendium, which includes 260 color and 80 b & w images, is a serviceable piece of scholarship in support of the exhibition—which runs from late February through June. The exhibition’s centerpiece is Gauguin’s 1897 masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, considered the crowning glory of his mature career. Over one hundred years later, Gauguin remains one of the most enigmatic and attractive figures of 19th-century art, the very pivot of modernism, and Gauguin Tahiti portrays this crucial period of his life. (RB)

Love After War: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam edited by Wayne Karlin & Ho Anh Thai (641 PP, Curbstone Press)

It is a brave, perhaps even bold, publishing house that would create an anthology of Vietnamese writers. Curbstone, which has a fine tradition of publishing Latino and Chicano writers—as one reviewer has suggested—"deserves a medal for gathering these fictions up in one omnibus." Forty-five writers, divided into five thematic sections, comprise this unique tome that is powerful evidence of a barely (if at all) recognized Vietnamese literary culture. (RB)

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues – Elijah Wald (342 PP, Harper Collins)

The legendary blues man Robert Johnson’s music has been expropriated by any number of late 20th century musicians from Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones on, making Johnson arguably and in author Wald’s view, the most important blues musician of all time. It was something of an anomaly that a Sony 2 CD set of the complete Johnson recordings, released in the 1990, became an unlikely best seller (and Grammy winner?). Wald, like the better musical biographers (I’m thinking Nick Tosches, David Hadju, Peter Guralnick), is focused on providing a social historical context for Johnson and his mythological status in American music. Though concluding, "As far as black music goes, Robert Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened in the decades that followed his death would have been affected if he had never played a note," is odd when you have written an almost-400-page book. Nor does this suggest ambivalence but perhaps attention by Wald to a point too fine to be of any concern, maybe? (RB)

God’s Rat
– Michael Bookman (243 PP. AmErica House)

My first impression of this book that author Bookman was kind enough to send me was that it was significantly under published—terrible cover art, obscure blurbs and, of course, the fact that it was published in December of 2000. That notwithstanding, Bookman’s novel travels back to the early 20th century East Side of NYC when "Jew Town" was populated by characters like Big Jack Zelig. There is a particular irony that this novel takes place on the last day of NYPD LT. Charlie Becker’s life—his imminent execution at Sing Sing prison for a murder he didn’t commit having some striking parallels to James Carlos Blake’s latest novel, Handsome Harry. (RB)

Conversations With American Women Writers – Sarah Anne Johnson (229 PP, University Press of New England)

Since this book is located in territory that I forage in, I am again reminded of how many publishing professionals have advised me that interview anthologies (such as this one) do not sell. Apparently, that leaves it to small and university presses to enter this land of "no commercial potential." Anyway, Sarah Anne Johnson, who fancies herself "nationally recognized author interviewer," has collected 17 of her interviews: Andrea Barrett, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Elizabeth Cox, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Maria Flook, Lynn Freed, Gish Jen, Nora Okja Keller, Jill McCorkle, Sue Miller, Sena Jeter Naslund, Ann Patchett, Jayne Anne Phillips, AJ Verdelle, and Lois Ann Yamanaka. That is, in case you are interested—and I think you should be. (RB)

Vintage Hughes (194 PP), Baldwin (201 PP), Munro (196 PP), Ford (196 PP)

These "readers," which for soft-cover publisher Vintage is undoubtedly a brilliant repackaging and marketing stroke, will also likewise draw critical raspberries from serious devotees. The anthologizing of prolific writing careers like those above and additionally, Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Barry Lopez, Haruki Murakami. Vladmir Nabokov, VS Naipaul and Oliver Sacks with useful bibliographical and biographical information seems like a smart way to introduce authors (Vintage might have included editing credits) to new, most likely young readers. Viking, in past and possibly more literary times, frequently published anthologies under the rubric The Portable Faulkner or The Portable Nietzche or some such. Of course, those tomes had more heft—at least in quantity of content—and were first offered as cloth editions. Actually, it occurs to me that if I ever find myself in an airport again, this is the kind of book I would buy for a long flight if by some unlikely event I have not brought a bag of books. (RB)

Call of the Mall : The Author of Why We Buy on the Geography of Shopping – Paco Underhill (227 PP, Simon & Schuster)

The fact that Malcolm Gladwell’s turf in the New Yorker covers the (occasionally fascinating) behavioral science that connects to the much over-exposed retail preoccupation(s) of America makes it possible for this kind of book to hit the mainstream—as opposed to being a case book at business schools—Underhill (an urban geographer and "retail anthropologist") and his company Envirosell have, in fact, been profiled by Gladwell. Pithy observations like, "It is no surprise that the mall is such an easy target for American self loathing. It’s a lot like television. We disdain it, yet we can’t stop watching it. Or shopping." Or finally, the fatal conclusion that "the mall is an American way of life, It could be much better, more vivid, intelligent, adventurous, entertaining, imaginative, alive with the human quest for art and beauty. But it’s not. It’s the mall." Here’s a bit of logrolling by business guru (a word these guys dish out handily) Tom Peters, " …a delightful romp though one of America’s most socially telling and economically important phenomena. The book establishes Paco Underhill, already one of our premier marketing gurus [yup], as a heavy weight social commentator…" (RB)

Mr. Paradise : A Novel
– Elmore Leonard (290 PP, Wm Morrow)

Dutch Leonard, who is as dependable as anything can be in this life, makes his annual literary (let’s avoid the usual pedantic jousting about the value of genres) offering, having written one his best female characters since Karen Sisco in Out of Sight. This story returns to Detroit, familiar turf for Leonard, and plays out as a homicide, gone partially wrong, and the nascent attraction and affair of Kelley Ann Barr, Victoria’s Secret model, who happens to be at the scene of the crime and homicide detective Frank Delsa, who is doggedly trying to solve this case. The dialogue is up the usual high Leonardian standards, as are various ambient digressions—including the details of harvesting bull semen (one of the minor characters traffics in that commodity). (RB)


January 30, 2004

The Midnight Disease : The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain – Alice Flaherty (306 PP, Houghton Mifflin)

Neurologist Alice Flaherty looks at, among others, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Stephen King and Sylvia Plath to visit the issues surrounding the biology of creativity and understanding the creative drive, especially the polarities of hypergraphia and writer’s block. Flaherty also draws on her own experience with manic hypergraphia, "when the sight of a computer keyboard or blank page gave me the same rush that drug addicts get from seeing their free-basing paraphernalia." And so, her own case as well as her clinical work account for her singular perspective in making connections between "pain and the drive to communicate and mood disorders and the creative muse." Needless to say, this is a compelling subject for creative and would-be creative types. Interestingly, science seems to reinforce the conventional wisdom in teaching circles that drive trumps talent. That and a lot more is packed into this fascinating work —which I intend to explore with Doc Flaherty soon. You might want to check back. (RB)

Letters : 1925-1975 – Hannah Arendt & Martin Heidegger (335 PP, Harcourt)

That Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem) and Martin Heidegger (Being and Time) were two major twentieth-century thinkers and philosophers would be sufficient to make a volume of their correspondence noteworthy. But this unlikely couple, young brilliant Jewish Arendt and the notoriously pro-Nazi Heidegger provide an additional element of fascination. Their relationship, of course, was interrupted by Arendt’s flight to the US from the Nazi regime, and they resumed after WW II. This collection makes a worthy bookend to the Arendt-Mary McCarthy correspondence. (RB)

The Rope Eater: A Novel – Ben Jones (294 PP, Doubleday)

I’m going to forgo my temptation to relate the Arctic setting of this book to the hypothermic weather conditions outside my doorstep. It does serve as a vivid reminder of how torturous the early Polar explorations were. The debut novel is set in Civil War America as Brendan Kane, a Union Army deserter, ends up in New Bedford, Massachusetts and joins the crew of a ship on a exploration to an undisclosed goal—that turns out to be the Arctic Circle. Havoc, of course, ensues, as it must. Within this story mildly reminiscent of Andrea Barrett’s Voyage of the Narwhal and Alexander’s Endurance is the tale of Aziz, the three-handed engine tender—the roper eater of the book’s title—and the horrifying explanation of that appellation. I expect to be talking to Ben Jones soon. Stay tuned. (RB)

I Want to Be Your Shoebox – ed. Thomas Beller & Joanna Yas (253 PP, Open City # 18)

Needless to say (but I will) there is something gloriously quixotic about small literary magazines. Not much more evolved than some high-school clique, most provide the invaluable service of giving nomadic fictions sanctuary in a less-than-hospitable world. Open City is the brainchild of writer and literary man-about-Manhattan, Thomas Beller (Seduction Theory and The Sleep-Over Artist) and his best friend, the deceased Robert Bingham (Lightning on the Sun). In fact, recently the Bingham family has endowed a Pen/Robert Bingham Fellowship to encourage "winners to undertake and complete a project of public literary service that brings authors and their works to settings outside the literary mainstream, such as schools, adult educational programs, and literacy centers that serve low-income communities. These projects will be conducted under the auspices of PEN." Ah, but I digressed. As would be expected there is a list of contributors who in a few years will find their way into The New Yorker or The Atlantic. The only writer in this issue whom I am familiar with is Nick Tosches (In the Hand of Dante)—about whom it is claimed that he has never eaten a cheeseburger—who provides a poem called Gynaecology. Oh yeah, that Viggo Mortenssen guy has a suite of (Aaron Siskind derived) photographs called Hole in the Sun. (RB)

Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects – Joel Sternfeld (140 PP, D.A.P.)

Joel Sternfeld‘s main focus or subject— on the contamination of paradise— was wonderfully represented when this book was first published in 1987. Now beautifully reprinted in an oversize edition (11.75 x 14.5) these 60 color images (8 never published before) as one commentator observed "are one profound meditation on a perennial postmodern question: Have the chances for Utopia been lost? …it is Sternfeld’s skeptical, trenchant and loving depiction of the in schism in contemporary consciousness that has permitted photographic practice to move forward as it has since the pivotal American Prospects." Don’t be put off by this buoyant artspeak, these images and this book as compelling narrative tableaux. (RB)

Dark Tide : The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 – Stephen Puleo (263 PP, Beacon Press)

I’ve lost count of how many novels in which I have encountered passing references to this great disaster—the first few times I assumed that it was a fictitious event —when a 50-foot-tall tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston’s waterfront producing a 15-foot-high wave of molasses traveling at 35 miles an hour. Twenty-one people were killed and hundreds injured with massive and widespread destruction of property. Steve Puleo pulls together admirable and arduous research with intelligent analysis and elegant framing of this event in appropriate local and national context. And as a number of novelists have sensed before him, Puleo pulls out that wonderful tale in the Molasses Flood. (RB)


January 15, 2004

The Root of Roots: Or, How Afro-American Anthropology Got Its Start – Richard and Sally Price (89 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)

The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo – Magnus Fiskesjo (73 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)

On the Edges of Anthropology: Interviews – James Clifford (121 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)

What Happened to Art Criticism? – James Elkins (86 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)

Last year one of the wonderful things the Literary Saloon introduced me to was Eliot Weinberger’s 9/11: New York After, (Paradigm #9) a "pamphlet" that Chicago-based Prickly Paradigm Press produced. The mission is "to provide serious authors with a platform to speak out on what’s right and what’s wrong about their disciplines and about the world." Pretty good, right? The booklets above are the latest batch: interviews with anthropologist James Clifford offering “provocative reflections on an intellectual career in transformation.” Magnus Fiskesjo gives an analysis of the symbolic rituals of pardons within the history of the American presidency. The Prices focus on the origins of the field currently known as African diaspora studies. And James Elkins of the Art Institute of Chicago deplores the neutralized sate of art criticism and lists explanations for its increasing irrelevance. One caveat, none of these tracts are for the faint of heart and short of attention span. (RB)

Artists in Times of WarHoward Zinn (112 PP, Seven Stories Press)

As full disclosure is a contemporary fetish let me say that I took a graduate history course from Howard Zinn many years ago, and I have been profoundly influenced not only by his scholarship (The People’s History of the United States) but by his grace and decency as a person. And I have ‘interviewed ‘ Howard Zinn at least three times. This slender volume is comprised of previously presented edited versions of three speeches and an essay dealing with the artists/citizens’ response to war. The title speech ends with Philip Berrigan’s poem in honor of homeless advocate Mitchell Snyder who committed suicide:

Some stood up once and sat down,
Some walked a mile and walked away,
Some stood up twice then sat down,
I’ve had it, they said.

Some walked two miles, then walked away,
It’s too much, they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
they were taken for fools
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth
they walked the waters
they walked the air.

Why do you stand?
they were asked, and
why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and
because of the heart, and
because of the bread.

the cause
in the heart’s beat
and the children born
and the risen bread.

And for those who argue that calling the Bushites to account aids the USA’s enemies, consider Howard Zinn’s contention that criticism of the government is the highest act of patriotism. (RB)

Interviews With Dwight Macdonald
– ed. Michael Wreszin (181 PP, University Press of Mississippi)

A few months ago I ran across Conversations with William Gass published by the University Press of Mississippi and serendipitously learned of the fine series of books collecting interviews and conversations with some wonderful writers, like the influential Dwight Macdonald, at one time the editor of the Partisan Review. Twenty years after his death, Macdonald’s name still resonates in the contemporary cultural conversation that goes on in opinion leading journals and periodicals. He was a thinker concerned with what is now called "dumbing" down of ‘mass’ or ‘pop’ culture—terms he is credited with coining. As Macdonald’s biographer and the editor of this volume, Michael Wrezsin notes, "Macdonald was at his best in conversation, His students note that he was seemingly nervous and awkward at the podium during a lecture. His forte was at the seminar table in conversation. There he was stimulating and provocative." That makes this book especially valuable. (RB)

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain : New Poems – Charles Bukowski (297 PP, Ecco)

When Bukowski died he left a treasure trove of unpublished work, apparently purposely withheld for posthumous publication. John Martin Bukowski’s long-time editor at Black Sparrow Press began bringing the poems out last year with sifting through the madness for the Word, the line, the way, and now this second collection in a projected series of five, presents 140 quintessential Bukowski poems. Such as "Alone in this Room":

I am alone in this room as the world
washes over me.
I sit and wait and wonder.
I have a terrible taste in my mouth
as I sit and wait in this room.
I can no longer see the walls.
everything has changed into something else.
I can not joke about this,
I cannot explain this as
the world washes over me.
I don’t care if you believe me because
I have lost interest in that too.
I am in a place where I have never been before.

I am alone in a different place that
does not include other faces,
other human beings.
it is happening to me now
in a space within a space as
I sit and wait alone in this room.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994 at the age of 73 having published 45 books of poetry and prose. The beat goes on. (RB)

Sepharad – Antonio Munoz Molina, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (385 PP, Harcourt)

To claim that Munoz Molina is one of Spain’s most popular and respected writers no doubt will aid his climb up the American bestseller lists. But I expect that it is reviews by the wonderfully talented (and unheralded) Michael Pye (Taking Lives, The Pieces from Berlin) that will put Sepharad in to the hands of appreciative readers. In his recent New York Times piece he proclaims, "There are books that put the writer at risk like a high-wire act and books that self-destruct and others that are minefields ready to take the reader down. And then there is Sepharad, a wonderfully alarming book on every one of these counts. It is a net of images and horrors, of lives seen at surprising angles, all bound to the subject of Spain — the land the rabbis identified with the biblical Sepharad — and the fearful business of leaving it." Munoz Molina’s novel draws from the Sephardic diaspora, the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges to tell a twentieth century story that is a fabulous blending of fact and fiction. Don’t let the fact that the author is a foreigner stop you from reading this book—the highly Margaret Sayers Peden translates. (RB)

The Best American Essays 2003 edited by Anne Fadiman (338 PP, Houghton Mifflin)

The original Best American series began 1915 and was first augmented in 1986 to include the Best American Essays. There have been other arguably less useful additions (Sports Writing, Travel Writing, Mystery Writing, Recipes, Non Required Reading) but Best Stories and Best Essays have remained dependably and occasionally brilliantly useful annual anthologies. This year’s entry guest edited by American Scholar‘s Anne Fadiman is no exception. In her introduction, she quotes Phillip Lopate (who didn’t make this year’s cut) saying the personal essay is voice of middle age. This by way of explaining that personal essays seem to be written by people with more than a few gray hairs— rather than 25-year-olds who are finishing their first novels. That seems to be quite true (or self-fulfilling) in the 2003 round up. The 24 essays included are by Andre Aciman, Donald Antrim, Joseph Epstein, Ian Frazier, Atul Gawande, Ed Hoagland, Jane Kramer, Judith Thurman, Katha Pollitt, Susan Sontag, John Edgar Wideman and others. Here’s a bit of Wideman’s "Whose War" first published in Harper’s:

Hear what I’m saying. We ain’t going nowhere, as the boys in the hood be saying. Nowhere. If you promote all the surviving Afghans to the status of honorary American, Mr. President, where exactly on the bus does that leave me. When do I get paid. When can I expect my invitation to the ranch. I hear Mr. Putin’s wearing jungle jangle silver spurs around his dacha. Heard you fixed him up with an eight figure advance on his memoirs. Is it true he’s iced up to be the Marlboro man after he retires from Russia. Anything left under the table for me. And mine.

Amen. (RB)

Fallingwater Rising : Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House – Franklin Toker (475 PP, Knopf)

This is, as the dust jacket points out, is biography of the house and masterpiece that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for wealthy department store mogul EJ Kaufman in 1937. At 475 pages, it better be a fascinating story —it happens to include key figures of the ’30s such as Frida Kahlo, Ayn Rand, Henry Luce, FDR, William Randolph Hearst and even Albert Einstein. Author Toker has been working on this history of the most famous private house in the world, which became a fundamental icon of American life, for nineteen years and as he points out his book "looks at Fallingwater as a work of art, as a triumph of public relations, as a popular creation of the Depression (along with Superman and Gone with the Wind), and as a weapon that both the architect and client used to overcome their private humiliations." (RB)

American Sucker – David Denby (337 PP, Little Brown)

I suspect that everyone who reads The New Yorker has a favorite staff writer that they love to hate—for many people it seems to be Adam Gopnik. Me, I find David Denby and his jejune scribblings to be easily dismissable. And when they rise to the level of a book such as Great Books and now this "insightful beautifully written memoir," well, you get it. American Sucker "chronicles Denby’s personal wild financial experiment testing his distinctly American faith in capitalism while confronting him with the competitiveness and hubris that always drive us to want more." If you go for that story you are a bigger rube than he is. (RB)

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