Book Rate Digested Book Reviews: February 2005

Note: (RB) = Robert
Birnbaum
; (RLW) = RL
Whalen
; (JT) = Janice Tsai; (AK) = Angie
Kritenbrink
; (MB) equals Matt
Borondy
; (DM) = Drew
McNaughton
, and soon enough there will be other abbreviations
to deal with. Links go to Amazon.com.

Articles of War – Nick Arvin
(Doubleday, 178 pp.)

For the record, I am going to eschew (at least at this moment in
time) yet another opportunity to rail against the game of chance
that book publishing seems to be. There is no reason that I should
have picked out this book from the torrent of packages that arrive
regularly (in part through the good graces of Rasheed, my UPS guy)—except
perhaps for the dust jacket blurb by Mark Spragg (whose An Unfinished
Life
is a gem of a book). The novel is about GI George "Heck"
Tilson, an eighteen-year-old Iowa farm boy who has enlisted and
finds himself at Omaha Beach in August 1944. In the course of this
narrative Heck discovers the painful truth about himself. He is
a coward. I agree with Spragg: "Arvin has accomplished what
only a handful of writers have managed—he has crafted a spare
and perfect masterwork." (RB)

 

This is a Voice from Your Past
Merrill Joan Gerber (Ontario Review Press, 219 pp.)

Through no fault of the author's, a line from a Leonard Cohen song
kept running through my head: "Took my diamond to the pawnshop—but
that don't make it junk." I thought of this song, I think,
because I was considering the paucity of reviews for this slender
volume of thirteen stories by California writer Gerber, who has
previously published seven novels, most recently Anna in the
Afterlife
. Not being reviewed don't exactly make this book
"junk." As Cynthia
Ozick
opines in a dust jacket commendation, the "eye in
these powerful stories is directed to the elusiveness of inner life
without ever sacrificing full and shrewd observation of the other
life. [Gerber's] touch is light but the matter is the pain, remorse
and debris of life as it really is—illumined by humor, honesty
and a clarifying and moving humanity." That's good enough for
me. What about you? (RB)

 

Orphans: Essays –Charles D'Ambrosio (Clear
Cut Press
, 232 pp.)

Oregon- (or as they like to say, North Pacific America-) based
Clear Cut Press is one of those wonderful publishing imprints sprouting
up along with a slew of new literary magazines that are beacons
of hope to writers living away from the centers of ambition. The
hope, of course, is the possibility of being published. Fiction
writer and essayist Charles D'Ambrosio's work has appeared, among
other places, in The Stranger, Harper's, Barcelona
Review
, The New Yorker, and Nest Magazine.
His book of stories, The Point, was published in 1995.
The topics of his essays include a visit to a Russian orphanage,
a Makah whale hunt, the rape charge sentencing of Mary Kay Letourneau
with this glorious Nathaniel Westian observation, "Cameras
clicked like locusts, making an amplified mandibular chewing sound
. . . an unbelievably ugly, swinish and rude moment," and D'Ambrosio's
yearlong residence in the dying town of Phillipsburg, Montana (the
setting of a Richard Hugo poem). Here's Christopher Frizzelle on
D'Ambrosio: "Orphans does for the Northwest what Joan
Didion's essays did for California; it gives this place definition
and legitimacy. Like Didion's, D'Ambrosio's essays are perspicacious,
clean, and wrenching. They have the terrific gravity of great stories.
They have life in them. They're heavy and fat and funny. They're
good. They're hard to write about." (RB)

 

The Intimate World Of Abraham Lincoln – C.
A. Tripp (Free Press, 368 pp.)

Susan Sontag's passing occasioned some finely wrought eloquence
as befitted her place in the pantheon of contemporary American culture—a
venue that is as well-stocked as a Soviet department store. Not
unpredictably, a mini controversy broke out regarding the necessity
or journalistic obligation of including Sontag's sexual preferences
in her obituaries. Personally, I could care less with whom or what
Sontag or anyone else slept. And now, lo and behold we have a book
on Lincoln purporting to uncover new evidence of Abraham Lincoln's
sexuality. This book, by [now deceased] sex researcher C. A. Tripp,
a colleague of Alfred Kinsey, further claims that Lincoln's "unconventional"
views are explained by his homosexuality. All of which still doesn't
rise to a level of any interest for me. Enter Gore
Vidal
, who does frequently fascinate me: "Although I did
once agree with Professor [David Duncan] Donald that Lincoln's sex
life sheds no particular light on his public life, I am now intrigued
by some of the generalities Dr. Kinsey made about males who go early
into puberty. Precocious sexually, they are apt to be precocious
psychologically. Lincoln's understanding of the adult world began
early, and this gave him not only a sense of the broad picture but
inclined him to empathy for others unlike himself. He had also avoided
the hang-ups of those indoctrinated in their teens with the folklore
of the time, which condemned masturbation and same-sexuality as
evils, while Lincoln knew firsthand that they were not. From that
single insight it was no great step to recognize that the enslavement
of one race by another was, despite St. Paul's complaisance, a true
evil." Also, I am left wondering what the impact of these new
"revelations" will have on those admirers of Lincoln who
are compelled to condemn homosexuality. It must be tough for them.
(RB)

 

Valley of Bones – Michael Gruber (William
Morrow, 436 pp.)

I noticed that while I am still adventurous in venturing into uncharted
areas of contemporary fiction, my forays into the so-called genre
territory has remained predictable in my reading with a pleasurable
diet of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, George Pelecanos, Alan Furst,
John LeCarre, Charles McCarry, Walter Mosely, and Ed McBain. For
a reason I can't adequately (no doubt a quick scan of a mention
somewhere) identify, I picked up this, Michael Gruber's second novel
(his debut was the apparently well-praised Tropic of Night).
Valley of Bones continues with Miami homicide detective
Jimmy Paz and takes him to investigating a murder that reaches all
way to the Sudanese civil war, a santeria ceremony, the
history of an unusual order of nuns, and a sexually charged relationship
with a neurotic Jewish psychologist. I knew I was hooked when early
on Gruber makes use of one of my favorite quotations (on social
justice) by Anatole France, "The law, in its majestic equality,
forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to
beg in the streets and to steal bread." Gruber has a children's
book, The Witch's Boy, coming soon and a third Jimmy Paz
novel in the works. Good news. (RB)

 

Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays
Christopher Hitchens (Nation Books, 475 pp.)

It does speak to a certain fickleness of attention if not a poverty
of tolerance that Christopher
Hitchens
seems currently to have been largely ignored by a goodly
number of former fans of the Richard Burtonesque Brit. Or at least
his latest collection of essays have not found review coverage in
places that once would have been aquiver with rhapsodic delight
at a new title from "Hitch." He explains, "I have
been slandered . . . for what I said at the time, and so have taken
care to reprint it, in the raw stages in which it first appeared,
so as to try and show how my feelings gradually became more like
thoughts. That was a condensed day of love, poverty, and war, all
right." Additionally, in a recent
interview
Hitchens recaps this book's introduction:

There's an old saying that a man hasn't lived until he's
experienced love, poverty and war. (O. Henry even wrote a short
story in which a hapless New Yorker gets involved in all three
in one evening.) But don't worry, this isn't about my love life
or my struggles with poverty. It is, though, in its third section,
directly concerned with the latest and bitterest war, namely the
fight against jihadist nihilism, and it does contain my reports
from Iraq and Afghanistan and some of my domestic battles with
those who don't believe there is, or ought to be, a war in the
first place.

The first section, on Love, is chiefly devoted to literary criticism
and to essays on those I regard as upholding the gold standard
here. These range from Borges and Proust to Byron and Kipling
and Waugh and Amis. My hope is that literature can replace religion
as the source of our ethics, without ceasing to be a pleasurable
study and pursuit in its own right. The remainder of the Love
section is about my adopted country, the United States, and of
various travels I have taken within it, as well as the renewed
attachment I feel after the criminal assault on New York, and
on my home town of Washington DC, by fundamentalist murderers."
The "Poverty" chapters are chiefly concerned with my
hatred and contempt for religion and for the "faith-based"
in general. Poverty here is intended to mean poverty of the mind
and the imagination, as well as the actual poverty, stupidity,
disease and ignorance which religion creates and with which it
then has a parasitic relationship.

Yeah, exactly! (RB)

 

Born Losers: A History of Failure in America
Scott A. Sandage
(Harvard University Press, 362 pp.)

There is a category of books that is emerging or, at least of which
I am becoming conscious, that focuses on virgin territories and
that by the sheer novelty of their approach and subject make their
unlikely way into the . . . I'm thinking of Malcom Gladwell's books
and Louis Menand, Thomas Frank, even Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit
book. Born Losers is such a book. Sandage explores, from
colonial America to the present, how failure evolved from business
loss to personal deficit, a gauge of self worth. He reconstructs
the reality of real-life Willy Lomans, quoting from a smorgasbord
of sources (2000) including the thousands of requests sent to the
likes of John D. Rockefeller, Mark Twain, and even P. T. Barnum.
As Richard Eder opines, "[Sandage's] book, restless, stuffed
with citations (and overstuffed), and sometimes stretching a point,
a connection, or a bit of wordplay, suffers from exuberance but
profits far more by it. It is irrepressible and deeply serious,
asking an old question in fresh form: whether our doctrine of equal
opportunity and success to the best condemns everyone else to an
unending sense of failure." An important and original work
of cultural history—no doubt. (RB)

 

Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Fiction
edited by Massimo Riva (Yale University Press, 272 pp.)

I am not embarrassed at all to admit my ignorance of Italian literature
beyond Umberto Eco, Alberto Moravia, and Italo Calvino. Yale University
Press, regularly and rightfully lauded for the excellence of their
visual arts offerings, has an Italian Literature and Thought series
complete with an advisory board that includes Eco, Rebecca West,
and Lucia Re. Who knew? Editor Riva has collected English-language
translations of short stories and excerpts from novels that were
originally published in Italian between 1975 and 2001. In all probability
this tome would have escaped my attention had I not stumbled across
a 1990 Graywolf anthology, Names and Tears and Other Stories:
Forty Years of Italian Fiction
(edited by Kathrine Jason) in
a recent used book store forage. Now I have two books in my library
(so to speak) for my burgeoning Italian section. (RB)

 

For The Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko
(University of Chicago Press, 270 pp.)

Try as I might I have not been able to exorcise the diabolical
habit of consumption. I still haunt and graze at used bookstores
though it is clear that I am not in need of one more volume. But
tell me which of you who may be so afflicted as am I could pass
up this tome for extremely short money? I thought so. Growing up
in Chicago at mid century, I was blessed to experience a perennially
losing baseball team anchored by a hall of famer in the person of
Ernie "Let's Play Two" Banks and have a real newspaper
man writing for a daily newspaper—Mike Royko. This anthology
is the second, the first published in 1999. Here's famous Chicagoan
Roger Ebert from the forward to this edition: "Whether at the
Tribune, the Sun Times or the Daily News,
Mike Royko wrote the best piece in town just about everyday he wrote
a column. How did Mike get up day after day, year after year and
create such wonderful prose, each sentence seemingly so simple,
the final effect so subtle and funny—or profound? I don't
know. But I know it took not only genius, but courage and determination.
And a sense of humor." Damn, where is Mike when we need him?
(RB)

 

Voices of People's History of the United States
– Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (7 Stories, 665 pp.)

I guess the hackneyed phrase "back in the day" was made
for observations like "Who would have thought twenty years
ago that a progressive revision of American history, The People's
History of the United States
by Howard
Zinn
would have (eventually) sold a million copies." Who
indeed? That's of course good news. As is the publication of a companion
volume that includes the voices and thoughts of Frederick Douglass,
George Jackson, Eugene Debs, Chief Joseph, Woody Guthrie, Martin
Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan, Langston Hughes, Plough Jogger, Billie
Holiday, Sacco and Vanzetti, Walter Mosely, Patti Smith, Muhammad
Ali, Tim O'Brien, Kurt Vonnegut, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Twain,
and Malcolm X—well, you get it, right? (RB)

 

The Death of Demand – Tom Osenton (Financial
Times Books, 278 pp.)

Talk about serendipity—it is unlikely that in this lifetime
I would have come to this book on my own. As it turns out, its author
attends the same spinning classes as me and our friendly locker
room chats led to my discovery of his work. Not for nothing is economics
referred to as the "dismal science." That aside, however,
I am occasionally struck by how it is those social scientists—economists—that
frequently make the most acute analyses of the world as we [don't]
see it. I'm of course thinking of people Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen,
and Gunner Myrdal. Osenton's thesis here is one that is so obvious
that I grasped it intuitively—which means that I agree with
him because he is confirming what I already think. Isn't that the
way it is? Anyway, the idea here is that corporations can no longer
expect to achieve the huge growth that obtained from the war years
through the mid-seventies. More TV than viewers, more telephones
than talkers, more cars than drivers—what are the poor corporations
to do? (RB)

 

Going Wild: Adventures with Birds in the Suburban Wilderness
-
Robert Winkler (National Geographic, 208 pages)

Winkler’s Going Wild is a ride through suburbia
that blurs the line between wilderness and home, between journaling
and essay. The book’s staggering account of over 200 species,
and in-depth analysis of over 40 gives it dizzying ornithological
muscle – all in parks and lands easily within earshot of interstates.
The nests under our bridges hold species Winkler examines with a
precise and detailed eye. The Goshawk, for example: a bird ferocious
enough to make swooping claw-forward dives at human invaders to
its territory.

The suburbs are yearning for wildness. In his chapter, “Feeder
Wars” the life and death struggle of the avian world bring
the drama of a Serengeti watering hole to the seed scattered backyards
of the suburban Northeast. What amazed me about the book was the
ease with which information was dispensed in narrative form. Without
too much cheesy reverential acclaim, the species in Going Wild
rise above our normalized subdivided landscape and hold their own
prowess. Less an account of species sighted than an extraordinary
display of the wildness around us, the birds in the book carry us
out of our carpeted stagnation into a world flickering with life
at its edges. (DM)

 

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather. Knopf, originally
published 1923.

There are certain Willa Cather novels that are read over and over
again – the prairie novels such as My Antonia, O
Pioneers
, or Song of the Lark – all of which
have been made into "Little House on the
Prairie"-ish TV movies. A Lost Lady is definitely
not your typical
TV-movie prairie fare, unless maybe HBO starts making them. This
quintessential 1920's story rivals anything written by the Lost
Generation, and goes down just as smooth. In fact, I think I will
need to read it two or three more times before I can really appreciate
all of the complexities explored in this seemingly simple story.
But no time for that now. Here's what you need to know: Life on
the plains has never been as innocent as you might have been led
to believe by the Ingalls clan (or by the myriad media news outlets
who only know two colors: red and blue). A Lost Lady is
the story of a young guy finding that out for himself, and a couple
of years before Nick Calloway, even. (AK)

 

Swivel: The Nexus of Women and Wit,
Volume 1, Number 1. Seattle, 2004.

(can be purchased at http://www.swivelmag.com/
if not available where you are)

Swivel, a Seattle journal of women's humor, includes
funny poetry,
essays, stories, and comics written by and about women. Only a few
of the entries are not funny. Many of them are mildly to medium
funny, and at least one, including one about an actress's experience
working in reality television, was outright hilarious. One of them,
a comic by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, who relates the story
about how she became the librarian
action figure
is really darn cute. But actually the entry I
liked the most, entitled "The Girl Who was Led by Her Loins,"
was not particularly funny but oddly compelling anyway. I am not
sure if I would even classify Swivel as humor – to
be fair, the website does claim that they "are not out to bust
guts" but to provide "artfully crafted stories" containing
"subtle humor" – but what I really loved about reading
it was the refreshing lighthearted tone, which is sometimes sparse
in literary journals (and "women's lit" stuff for that
matter). It made a nice light read over a cup of coffee or three
one Saturday night. (AK)

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