December 1, 2003: “Despite industrial imperatives that focus on current releases…”

Despite industrial imperatives that focus on current releases with the hopes of creating bestsellers, hopefully in the giga proportions of Harry Potter, there are occasional reminders that the literary moment is not coincident with the commercial one. Jonathan Yardley’s "Second Reading" columns in the Washington Post are some of those. Recently Yardley revisited the prodigious oeuvre of John D McDonald which reminded me that before there was Parker or Hiaasen or James Hall or Thomas Perry or Lehane and Pelecanos, there was McDonald’s Travis McGee.

Another such restraint on the dominance of immediacy (at least for me) is the twice-yearly half price sale at the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in Cambridge—which was sweetened by a surprise 75% off sale on fiction in August. Among the treasures that fell into my hands (I always see these acquisitions as providential) was The Red and Green by Iris Murdoch, The Venerable Bead by Richard Condon, Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco, Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis, The Good Samaritan & Other Stories by John O Hara, The High Spirits by David Huddle, Birds of America by Mary McCarthy,
Reflections of An Angry Middle Aged Editor by James Wechsler and many others. For the price of an overpriced lunch in Harvard Square I came away with a fair-sized box of books. And based on Louis Menand’s recent piece in the New Yorker (Sept 15, 2003) on Condon, I started reading The Venerable Bead, which is a hilarious send up of anti-Communism, American Style. Condon makes a great use of (faux) Albanian culture and as humorously as Tune in Tomorrow (the film version of Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter) with Peter Falk, Keanu Reeves and Barbara Hershey, scapegoats Albanians.

I finally saw the film The Trials of Henry Kissinger by Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecke. There is a lot to be said about any narrative rendering of the uncompleted Kissinger Saga, and this film does well to scratch the surface with the prosecution represented by the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens whose book of the same name is a brilliant encapsulation of Kissinger’s high crimes. The film starts out with shots of Henry accompanied by Billy Strayhorn’s masterpiece "Lush Life" (sung by the singular Johnny Hartmann from his collaboration album with John Coltrane) and has some interesting tidbits (Alexander Haig, a former Kissinger aide who comes off as a twit, calls Hitchens a "sewer pipe sucker").

Back to finishing up Stuart Dybek’s must read (an obnoxious imperative, no?) new story collection, I Sailed with Magellan. A witless curiosity had me scanning the NYTBR piece on Dybeks’ book, and I came away aghast that the great Nelson Algren was not mentioned in a book about piece about a Chicago writer. That in turn reminded me of a righteous piece of Algren hagiography (and more) called "Mediocrity’s Vengeance" by another vastly underrated American writer, Michael Ventura. And on and on…

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