Book Rate Digested Book Reviews: December 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...


Note: (RB) = Robert

Birnbaum; (RLW) = RL

Whalen; (JT) = Janice Tsai; (AK) = Angie

Kritenbrink; (MB) equals Matt

Borondy; and soon enough there will be other abbreviations to

deal with. Links go to

Autrefois, Maison Privee

Bill Burke with an essay by Bernard Fall Letter by Prince Sirik

Matak (Powerhouse, 176 pp)

Boston-based photographer Bill Burke has traveled to Indochina

annually since the early 1980s. Though in large part a portraitist

(thankfully he does not abandon pictures of people in this book),

he has gradually become transfixed by the architecture and its reflection

of this region's history--beginning with the French colonial municipal

offices of the mid-nineteenth century, the railroad stations and

post offices built in the 1930s, up to the present day. This tome

records Indochina as an architectural museum with 104 tri-tone,

good-sized, well-printed images. Bernard Fall, who served as a journalist

in Indochina until his death in 1967, provides a poignant anecdote

dating from 1953, as well as a letter Prince Sirik Matak wrote to

the American Ambassador as the U.S. abandoned Cambodia, is provided

as a chilling historical footnote. This smartly designed book is

full of subtle visual and historical resonance. (RB)


The Godfather Returns – Mark Winegardner

(Random House, 460 pp)

It is no doubt a signal of the subjectivity of judgements on literary

matters that I differ with the comedically challenged reviewers

at the New York Times in offering that Mark Winegardner,

author most recently of That's True of Everyone, has written

a funnier, more socially aware, and morally acute book than the

still-deceased Puzo. This is a much better book than the last attempt

I read by an author to continue another writer's story--Robert Parker's

inept and soulless Poodle Springs (a failed effort to replicate

Raymond Chandler). One thing, though--Jon "The Pencil"

Karp might have lived up to his name and trimmed a few pages from

this opus. (RB)


The Nobel Lecture 2003 – J. M. Coetzee (Viking,

22 pp)

This handsome little volume would be an indulgence for anyone interested

in Coetzee's remarks, as his Nobel

lecture is freely available online (as are all the Nobel valedictories).

But the point here is that this is a handsome little volume, with

an embossed caricature of Coetzee (by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich)

adorning the naked (un-dust jacketed) cover boards. From the text,

entitled "He and his Man," an extended riff on Daniel

Defoe (and one of the more accessible passages), here is a taste:

"He does not read, he has lost the taste for it; but the writing

of his adventures has put him in the habit of writing, it is a pleasant

enough recreation. In the evening by candlelight he will take out

his papers and sharpen his quills and write a page or two of his

man, the man who sends report of the duckoys of Lincolnshire, and

of the great engine of death in Halifax, that one can escape if

before the awful blade can descend one can leap to one's feet and

dash down the hill, and of numbers of other things. Every place

he goes he sends report of, that is his first business, this busy

man of his." All right then. (RB)

A House On Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia

Soul – John A. Jackson (Oxford University Press, 352


You're going to have to put up with some turgid prose and some

quaintly obvious historical commentary if you are drawn to this

story. But this account of the geniuses Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble,

and Thom Bell, black hit-makers from Philadelphia who created the

Philly International record label and a treasure chest full of great

music, is a compelling story if you have any love for that music.

This is no Boogaloo, Arthur

Kempton's idiosyncratic but brainy survey of black popular music

of the twentieth century. But it fills in some of the spaces that

Kempton disregarded. Hats off to the Oxford University Press music

editor for taking on this book as well as some other nifty titles

(see below). (RB)


Nixon at the Movies – Mark Feeney (University

of Chicago Press, 422 pp)

One of the few reasons to the Boston Globe resides in

the columnists that ply their narrative craft within its pages.

Alex Beam, Katherine Powers, and Steve Bailey are reminders of the

power and ingenuity of that dwindling craft. Mark Feeney is also

a member of that small group. He takes a little-known fact, that

Richard Nixon watched about five hundred films while he was in the

White House--nearly two-and-a-half a week--and builds a fine story

from it. It is Feeney's argument that Nixon was the first true cinematic

president; his tenure in office infused with movies, and to make

that case Feeney unpacks the films and characters with which Nixon

identified. Needless to say, but it must be said, this is a fresh

and unorthodox look at Nixon's person and presidency. As venerable

biographer Robert A. Caro observes, "A thought provoking and

truly original book--a work filled with incisive insights into a

fascinating figure." (RB)


Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics and

Routines – Bill Hicks (Soft Skill Press, 340 pp)

Bill Hicks Live! – Bill Hicks (Rykodvd 220 min)


Hicks ("Think of me as Chomsky with dick jokes"),

who was acclaimed by those who knew of him as a great comic genius,

died at the age of thirty-three in 1994. He came to national prominence

when he was banned from the Letterman

Show for an unaired tirade against pro-lifers and the Pope:

You know who’s really bugging me these days?

These pro-lifers . . . (Smattering of applause.)

You ever look at their faces? . . . “I’m pro-life!”

(Here Bill makes a pinched face of hate and fear; his lips

are pursed as though he’s just sucked on a lemon.)

“I’m pro-life!” Boy, they look it, don’t

they? They just exude joie de vivre. You just want to hang with

them and play Trivial Pursuit all night long. (Audience chuckles.)

You know what bugs me about them? If you’re so pro-life,

do me a favor--don’t lock arms and block medical clinics.

If you’re so pro-life, lock arms and block cemeteries. (Audience

laughs.) ... I want to see pro-lifers at funerals opening

caskets--“Get out!” Then I’d really be impressed

by their mission. (Audience laughs and applauds.)

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. I was over

in Australia during Easter. It was interesting to note they celebrate

Easter the same way we do--commemorating the death and resurrection

of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit ... left

chocolate eggs in the night. (Audience laughs.)

Gee, I wonder why we’re so messed up as a race. You know,

I’ve read the Bible. Can’t find the words “bunny”

or “chocolate” in the whole book. (Audience laughs.)

I think it’s interesting how people act on

their beliefs. A lot of Christians, for instance, wear crosses

around their necks. Nice sentiment, but do you think when Jesus

comes back, he’s really going to want to look at a cross?

(Audience laughs. Bill makes a face of pain and horror.)

Ow! Maybe that’s why he hasn’t shown up yet.

(As Jesus looking down from Heaven) “I’m

not going, Dad. No, they’re still wearing crosses--they

totally missed the point. When they start wearing fishes, I might

go back again.... No, I’m not going.... O.K., I’ll

tell you what--I’ll go back as a bunny.”

No surprise coming from a mind that asked, "Ever

noticed that people who believe in Creationism look really unevolved?"

This compendium includes a foreword by John Lahr, the piece he wrote

for the New Yorker ("The

Goat Boy Rises") on Hicks. Here, from its closing passages:

My son wandered into the kitchen and lingered to

eavesdrop on the conversation. At one point, he broke in. “I

don’t know how you have the courage to say those things,”

he said. “I could never talk like that in front of people.”

Hicks smiled but had no response. Saying the unsayable

was just his job. He analyzed the previous night’s performance,

which had been filmed for an HBO special. (It was broadcast in

September to good reviews.) “People watch TV not

to think,” he said. “I’d like the opportunity

to stir things up once, and see what happens. But I’ve got

a question. Do I even want to be part of it anymore? Show business

or art--these are choices. It’s hard to get a grip on me.

It’s also hard for me to have a career, because there’s

no archetype for what I do. I have to create it, or uncover it.”

To that end, he said, he and Fallon Woodland, a standup from Kansas

City, were writing “The Counts of the Netherworld,”

a TV comedy commissioned for England’s Channel 4 and set

in the collective unconscious of mankind. Hicks was doing a column

for the English satire magazine Scallywag. He was planning

a comedy album, called “Arizona Bay,” a narrative

rant against California with his own guitar accompaniment. Should

he stay in England, where he was already a cult figure, or return

to America? He recounted a joke on the subject by his friend Barry

Crimmins, another American political comedian. “‘Hey,

buddy,’ this guy says to him after a show. ‘America—love

it or leave it!’ And Crimmins goes, ‘What? And be

a victim of our foreign policy?’“

Bill Hicks Live! presents three of his filmed

performances: One Night Stand from the Old Vic Theatre in Chicago

(approx. 30 minutes), Revelations from the Dominion Theatre in London

(approx. 65 minutes), and Relentless, Bill’s breakout performance

at the Montreal Comedy Festival (approx. 70 minutes). This DVD focuses

on his act, with Hicks "hilariously assaulting the stage and

the audience with a non-stop cornucopia of insights into our twisted

world; the government, the military, the police, religion, smoking,

pornography, drugs and of course a couple of dick jokes." Hicks

was good. Really good, and the book and the DVD are strong evidence.

Yes, indeed. (RB)


Django: The Life and Music of A Gypsy

Legend – Michael Dregni (Oxford University Press, 272


Who has a better name that legendary Gypsy guitarist Jean Baptiste

"Django" (which means "I Awake") Reinhardt.

I remember as an adolescent coming to his music via a

composition named for him by John Lewis. He had written it for

the Modern Jazz Quartet and I had heard it on an album with Sonny

Rollins sitting with the MJQ. When I heard Django's signature tune

"Nuages" I was hooked. For life. Apparently, Reinhardt's

music is referred to as the soundtrack for Paris (Dregni states

this book is as much about Paris as it is about the gypsy guitarist),

frequently used in film soundtracks. Not much has been written about

his life except that he almost died in fire that paralyzed his left

hand, requiring him to relearn how to play his instrument with two

fingers. He died of a stroke in 1953. Among other things Michael

Dregni tracks down Django's first wife and conducts numerous other

first-person interviews. Better this bio than the hundredth Mark

Twain or George Washington biography. Nes pas? (RB)


Bacacay – Witold Gombrowicz (Archipelago,

272 pp)

Witold Gombrowicz's

life is a story unto itself. Archipelago

books presents this, the first published English language translation

of his legendary story collection. You haven't heard of this author,

whom Milan Kundera calls one of the great novelists of the twentieth

century? Not to worry, that's why I’m here. Louis

Begley opines "that he is one most original and gifted

writers of 20th century: he belongs at the summit with kindred spirits,

Kafka and Celine." This well designed book contains twelve

stories by Gombrowicz (seven first published in 1933) and as Bill

Johnston, who we are told admirably translated this volume maintains,

"There can be no doubt whatsoever that the stories in this

book are brilliantly original works that deserve a permanent place

in the canon of world literature. From the very beginnings of his

writing career, Gombrowicz was driven by an ambition to produce

literature of significance on the scale of not just Poland but of

Europe and the world. The stories published here show clearly that

from his first published works this ambition was realized."


An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire – Arundhati

Roy (South End Press, 156 pp)

The CheckBook and The Cruise Missile: Conversations

with Arundhati Roy – Arundhati Roy, David Barsamian (South

End Press, 178 pp)

Arundhati Roy is perhaps best known as the author of the Booker

Prize winning novel (1997) The God of Small Things. Most

recently she won the Sydney

Peace Prize, which champions nonviolence. (She has proposed

donating the $50,000 prize to Australian aboriginal activists campaigning

for Land Rights and social justice in Australia). Acknowledging

this honor, Roy responded, "Today, in a world convulsed by

violence and unbelievable brutality the lines between 'us' and 'the

terrorists' have been completely blurred… We don't have to

choose between Imperialism and Terrorism, we have to choose what

form of resistance will rid us of both. What shall we choose? Violence

or nonviolence? …We have to choose knowing that when we are

violent to our enemies, we do violence to ourselves. When we brutalize

others, we brutalize ourselves. And eventually we run the risk of

becoming our oppressors'." The Ordinary Person's Guide

is a collection of speeches Roy has given and as the unabashedly

progressive South Press maintains "are an impassioned call

to arms against 'the apocalyptic apparatus of the American empire'."

Or to quote Roy, "At a time when opportunism is everything,

when hope seems lost, when everything boils down to a cynical business

deal, we must find the courage to dream. To reclaim romance. The

romance of believing in justice, in freedom, and in dignity. For

everybody. We have to make common cause, and to do this we need

to understand how this big old machine works--who it works for and

who it works against. Who pays, who profits." The Checkbook

and the Cruise Missile is a collection with David Barsamian,

the well-regarded host of Alternative

Radio and the man Howard

Zinn calls the Studs Terkel of his generation includes conversations

between February 2001 to May 2003, with Roy. Here's a small sample:

David Barsamian: Let's talk a little bit about

the mass media in the United States. You write that "thanks

to America's 'free press,' sadly, most Americans know very little"

about the U.S. government's foreign policy.

Arundhati Roy: Yes, it's a strangely insular

place, America. When you live outside it, and you come here, it's

almost shocking how insular it is. And how puzzled people are--and

how curious, now I realize, about what other people think, because

it's just been blocked out. Before I came here, I remember thinking

that when I write about dams or nuclear bombs in India, I'm quite

aware that the elite in India don't want to know about dams. They

don't want to know about how many people have been displaced,

what cruelties have been perpetrated for their own air conditioners

and electricity. Because then the ultimate privilege of the elite

is not just their deluxe lifestyles, but deluxe lifestyles with

a clear conscience. And I felt that that was the case here too,

that maybe people here don't want to know about Iraq, or Latin

America, or Palestine, or East Timor, or Vietnam, or anything,

so that they can live this happy little suburban life. But then

I thought about it. Supposing you're a plumber in Milwaukee or

an electrician in Denver. You just go to work, come home, you

work really hard, and then you read your paper or watch CNN or

Fox News and you go to bed. You don't know what the American government

is up to. And ordinary people are maybe too tired to make the

effort, to go out and really find out. So they live in this little

bubble of lots of advertisements and no information. (RB)

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