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 PriveeBill Burke with an essay by Bernard Fall Letter by Prince SirikMatak (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 pp)

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)

Bill 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 pp)

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." (RB)


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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