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

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 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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