Book Rate Digested Book Reviews: January/February 2004


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. Also, this is for 1) people who don't want to shell

out two hundred dollars for a subscription to Publisher's Weekly

2) Book lovers who are averse to reading reviews 3) Readers who

are not incited to mouth foaming at the mere mention of Toni Morrison,

Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo and most importantly 4) for people

who trust us.


Note: (RB) = Robert

Birnbaum; (RLW) = RL

Whalen; (JT) = Janice Tsai; (MB) will someday equal Matt Borondy;

and soon enough there will be other abbreviations to deal with.

Links go to


Darling : A Modern Romance – James

Howard Kunstler (323 PP, Grove Atlantic)


Howard Kunstler, (The Geography of Nowhere) who has

an eye and ear for the unintentional ironies and anomalies of contemporary

life, assembles a madcap, screwball, modern comedy of manners with

a Martha Stewart-like Maggie Darling at the center—though

as Janet Maslin points out, "… he draws on enough recognizable

detail to qualify Maggie Darling as a roman à clef, much

of it is fancifully scrambled: for instance, an affair between Maggie

and a Sting-like British heartthrob who uses the word 'tis in conversation.

Their romance disintegrates after he starts calling her Mum."

This is not the kind of book that normally captures my attention.

But such are Kunstler's narrative skills and his perceptive social

commentary as evidenced in his previous eleven books (eight novels

and three non-fiction) —as well as journalistic forays in

the New York Times Magazine (and the fact that he put the

book in front of me)—that I would have felt derelict not to

give note of this, his latest work. (RB)

Best New American Voices 2004 ed.

by John Casey (306 PP, Harcourt)

This annual probably is most useful to ambitious fledgling literary

agents looking to make their bones by signing the previously anonymous

to stupendous and career-threatening advances. Since its inception

in 2000, David Benioff, William Gay, Ana Menedez, Maile Meloy, Amanda

Davis, Jennifer Vanderbes and Timothy Westmoreland have had their

early work published in this anthology. And the proliferation of

writing programs and workshops almost require that there be new

venues to showcase the work of worthy unknowns. While the writers

are, as they say in sports journalism, “no names,” the

guest editors rank among the best writer/teachers in the land: Tobias

Wolff, Charles Baxter, Joyce Carol Oates and now John Casey. (RB)


Tahiti - George Shackelford and Claire

Freches-Thory (371 PP MFA Publications)

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows works from painter Paul

Gauguin's terminal period in Tahiti, and this compendium, which

includes 260 color and 80 b & w images, is a serviceable piece

of scholarship in support of the exhibition—which runs from

late February through June. The exhibition's centerpiece is Gauguin's

1897 masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where

Are We Going?, considered the crowning glory of his mature

career. Over one hundred years later, Gauguin remains one of the

most enigmatic and attractive figures of 19th-century art, the very

pivot of modernism, and Gauguin Tahiti portrays this crucial period

of his life. (RB)


After War: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam

edited by Wayne Karlin & Ho Anh Thai (641 PP, Curbstone Press)

It is a brave, perhaps even bold, publishing house that would create

an anthology of Vietnamese writers. Curbstone,

which has a fine tradition of publishing Latino and Chicano writers—as

one reviewer has suggested—"deserves a medal for gathering

these fictions up in one omnibus." Forty-five writers, divided

into five thematic sections, comprise this unique tome that is powerful

evidence of a barely (if at all) recognized Vietnamese literary

culture. (RB)


the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues

– Elijah Wald (342 PP, Harper Collins)

The legendary blues man Robert

Johnson's music has been expropriated by any number of late

20th century musicians from Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones

on, making Johnson arguably and in author Wald's view, the most

important blues musician of all time. It was something of an anomaly

that a Sony 2 CD set of the complete Johnson recordings, released

in the 1990, became an unlikely best seller (and Grammy winner?).

Wald, like the better musical biographers (I'm thinking Nick Tosches,

David Hadju, Peter Guralnick), is focused on providing a social

historical context for Johnson and his mythological status in American

music. Though concluding, "As far as black music goes, Robert

Johnson was an extremely minor figure, and very little that happened

in the decades that followed his death would have been affected

if he had never played a note," is odd when you have written

an almost-400-page book. Nor does this suggest ambivalence but perhaps

attention by Wald to a point too fine to be of any concern, maybe?


God's Rat – Michael Bookman (243

PP. AmErica House)

My first impression of this book that author Bookman was kind enough

to send me was that it was significantly under published—terrible

cover art, obscure blurbs and, of course, the fact that it was published

in December of 2000. That notwithstanding, Bookman's novel travels

back to the early 20th century East Side of NYC when "Jew Town"

was populated by characters like Big Jack Zelig. There is a particular

irony that this novel takes place on the last day of NYPD LT. Charlie

Becker's life—his imminent execution at Sing Sing prison for

a murder he didn't commit having some striking parallels to James

Carlos Blake's latest novel, Handsome Harry. (RB)


With American Women Writers – Sarah

Anne Johnson (229 PP, University Press of New England)

Since this book is located in territory that I forage in, I am

again reminded of how many publishing professionals have advised

me that interview anthologies (such as this one) do not sell. Apparently,

that leaves it to small and university presses to enter this land

of "no commercial potential." Anyway, Sarah

Anne Johnson, who fancies herself "nationally recognized

author interviewer," has collected 17 of her interviews: Andrea

Barrett, Aimee Bender, Amy

Bloom, Elizabeth

Cox, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Maria

Flook, Lynn Freed, Gish Jen, Nora

Okja Keller, Jill McCorkle, Sue Miller, Sena Jeter Naslund,

Ann Patchett, Jayne Anne Phillips, AJ Verdelle, and Lois Ann Yamanaka.

That is, in case you are interested—and I think you should

be. (RB)

Vintage Hughes (194 PP), Baldwin (201

PP), Munro (196 PP), Ford (196 PP)

These "readers," which for soft-cover publisher Vintage

is undoubtedly a brilliant repackaging and marketing stroke, will

also likewise draw critical raspberries from serious devotees. The

anthologizing of prolific writing careers like those above and additionally,

Sandra Cisneros, Joan Didion, Barry Lopez, Haruki Murakami. Vladmir

Nabokov, VS Naipaul and Oliver Sacks with useful bibliographical

and biographical information seems like a smart way to introduce

authors (Vintage might have included editing credits) to new, most

likely young readers. Viking, in past and possibly more literary

times, frequently published anthologies under the rubric The

Portable Faulkner or The Portable Nietzche or some

such. Of course, those tomes had more heft—at least in quantity

of content—and were first offered as cloth editions. Actually,

it occurs to me that if I ever find myself in an airport again,

this is the kind of book I would buy for a long flight if by some

unlikely event I have not brought a bag of books. (RB)


of the Mall : The Author of Why We Buy on the Geography of Shopping

– Paco Underhill (227 PP, Simon & Schuster)

The fact that Malcolm Gladwell's turf in the New Yorker

covers the (occasionally fascinating) behavioral science that connects

to the much over-exposed retail preoccupation(s) of America makes

it possible for this kind of book to hit the mainstream—as

opposed to being a case book at business schools—Underhill

(an urban geographer and "retail anthropologist") and

his company Envirosell have, in fact, been profiled by Gladwell.

Pithy observations like, "It is no surprise that the mall is

such an easy target for American self loathing. It's a lot like

television. We disdain it, yet we can't stop watching it. Or shopping."

Or finally, the fatal conclusion that "the mall is an American

way of life, It could be much better, more vivid, intelligent, adventurous,

entertaining, imaginative, alive with the human quest for art and

beauty. But it's not. It's the mall." Here's a bit of logrolling

by business guru (a word these guys dish out handily) Tom Peters,

" …a delightful romp though one of America's most socially

telling and economically important phenomena. The book establishes

Paco Underhill, already one of our premier marketing gurus [yup],

as a heavy weight social commentator…" (RB)

Mr. Paradise : A Novel - Elmore Leonard

(290 PP, Wm Morrow)

Dutch Leonard, who is as dependable as anything can be in this

life, makes his annual literary (let's avoid the usual pedantic

jousting about the value of genres) offering, having written one

his best female characters since Karen Sisco in Out of Sight.

This story returns to Detroit, familiar turf for Leonard, and plays

out as a homicide, gone partially wrong, and the nascent attraction

and affair of Kelley Ann Barr, Victoria's Secret model, who happens

to be at the scene of the crime and homicide detective Frank Delsa,

who is doggedly trying to solve this case. The dialogue is up the

usual high Leonardian standards, as are various ambient digressions—including

the details of harvesting bull semen (one of the minor characters

traffics in that commodity). (RB)


January 30, 2004


Midnight Disease : The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative

Brain – Alice Flaherty (306 PP,

Houghton Mifflin)

Neurologist Alice Flaherty looks at, among others, Fyodor Dostoevsky,

Stephen King and Sylvia Plath to visit the issues surrounding the

biology of creativity and understanding the creative drive, especially

the polarities of hypergraphia and writer's block. Flaherty also

draws on her own experience with manic hypergraphia, "when

the sight of a computer keyboard or blank page gave me the same

rush that drug addicts get from seeing their free-basing paraphernalia."

And so, her own case as well as her clinical work account for her

singular perspective in making connections between "pain and

the drive to communicate and mood disorders and the creative muse."

Needless to say, this is a compelling subject for creative and would-be

creative types. Interestingly, science seems to reinforce the conventional

wisdom in teaching circles that drive trumps talent. That and a

lot more is packed into this fascinating work —which I intend

to explore with Doc Flaherty soon. You might want to check back.



: 1925-1975 – Hannah Arendt &

Martin Heidegger (335 PP, Harcourt)

That Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann

in Jerusalem) and Martin Heidegger (Being and Time)

were two major twentieth-century thinkers and philosophers would

be sufficient to make a volume of their correspondence noteworthy.

But this unlikely couple, young brilliant Jewish Arendt and the

notoriously pro-Nazi Heidegger provide an additional element of

fascination. Their relationship, of course, was interrupted by Arendt's

flight to the US from the Nazi regime, and they resumed after WW

II. This collection makes a worthy bookend to the Arendt-Mary McCarthy

correspondence. (RB)


Rope Eater: A Novel – Ben Jones

(294 PP, Doubleday)

I'm going to forgo my temptation to relate the Arctic setting of

this book to the hypothermic weather conditions outside my doorstep.

It does serve as a vivid reminder of how torturous the early Polar

explorations were. The debut novel is set in Civil War America as

Brendan Kane, a Union Army deserter, ends up in New Bedford, Massachusetts

and joins the crew of a ship on a exploration to an undisclosed

goal—that turns out to be the Arctic Circle. Havoc, of course,

ensues, as it must. Within this story mildly reminiscent of Andrea

Barrett's Voyage of the Narwhal and Alexander's Endurance

is the tale of Aziz, the three-handed engine tender—the roper

eater of the book's title—and the horrifying explanation of

that appellation. I expect to be talking to Ben Jones soon. Stay

tuned. (RB)

I Want to Be Your

Shoebox – ed. Thomas Beller &

Joanna Yas (253 PP, Open City # 18)

Needless to say (but I will) there is something gloriously quixotic

about small literary magazines. Not much more evolved than some

high-school clique, most provide the invaluable service of giving

nomadic fictions sanctuary in a less-than-hospitable world. Open

City is the brainchild of writer and literary man-about-Manhattan,

Thomas Beller (Seduction Theory and The Sleep-Over

Artist) and his best friend, the deceased Robert Bingham (Lightning

on the Sun). In fact, recently the Bingham

family has endowed a Pen/Robert Bingham Fellowship to encourage

"winners to undertake and complete a project of public literary

service that brings authors and their works to settings outside

the literary mainstream, such as schools, adult educational programs,

and literacy centers that serve low-income communities. These projects

will be conducted under the auspices of PEN." Ah, but I digressed.

As would be expected there is a list of contributors who in a few

years will find their way into The New Yorker or The

Atlantic. The only writer in this issue whom I am familiar

with is Nick

Tosches (In the Hand of Dante)—about whom it

is claimed that he has never eaten a cheeseburger—who provides

a poem called Gynaecology. Oh yeah, that Viggo

Mortenssen guy has a suite of (Aaron Siskind derived) photographs

called Hole in the Sun. (RB)


Sternfeld: American Prospects

Joel Sternfeld (140 PP, D.A.P.)

Joel Sternfeld's

main focus or subject— on the contamination of paradise—

was wonderfully represented when this book was first published in

1987. Now beautifully reprinted in an oversize edition (11.75 x

14.5) these 60 color images (8 never published before) as one commentator

observed "are one profound meditation on a perennial postmodern

question: Have the chances for Utopia been lost? …it is Sternfeld's

skeptical, trenchant and loving depiction of the in schism in contemporary

consciousness that has permitted photographic practice to move forward

as it has since the pivotal American Prospects." Don't

be put off by this buoyant artspeak, these images and this book

as compelling narrative tableaux. (RB)


Tide : The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

– Stephen Puleo (263 PP, Beacon Press)

I've lost count of how many novels in which I have encountered

passing references to this great disaster—the first few times

I assumed that it was a fictitious event —when a 50-foot-tall

tank filled with 2.3 million gallons of molasses collapsed on Boston's

waterfront producing a 15-foot-high wave of molasses traveling at

35 miles an hour. Twenty-one people were killed and hundreds injured

with massive and widespread destruction of property. Steve Puleo

pulls together admirable and arduous research with intelligent analysis

and elegant framing of this event in appropriate local and national

context. And as a number of novelists have sensed before him, Puleo

pulls out that wonderful tale in the Molasses Flood. (RB)


January 15, 2004


Root of Roots: Or, How Afro-American Anthropology Got Its Start

– Richard and Sally Price (89 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)


Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign

Exception of Guantánamo – Magnus

Fiskesjo (73 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)


the Edges of Anthropology: Interviews

– James Clifford (121 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)


Happened to Art Criticism? – James

Elkins (86 PP, Prickly Paradigm Press)

Last year one of the wonderful things the Literary

Saloon introduced me to was Eliot Weinberger's 9/11: New

York After, (Paradigm #9) a "pamphlet" that Chicago-based

Prickly Paradigm

Press produced. The mission is "to provide serious authors

with a platform to speak out on what's right and what's wrong about

their disciplines and about the world." Pretty good, right?

The booklets above are the latest batch: interviews with anthropologist

James Clifford offering “provocative reflections on an intellectual

career in transformation.” Magnus Fiskesjo gives an analysis

of the symbolic rituals of pardons within the history of the American

presidency. The Prices focus on the origins of the field currently

known as African diaspora studies. And James Elkins of the Art Institute

of Chicago deplores the neutralized sate of art criticism and lists

explanations for its increasing irrelevance. One caveat, none of

these tracts are for the faint of heart and short of attention span.



in Times of WarHoward

Zinn (112 PP, Seven Stories Press)

As full disclosure is a contemporary fetish let me say that I took

a graduate history course from Howard Zinn many years ago, and I

have been profoundly influenced not only by his scholarship (The

People's History of the United States) but by his grace and

decency as a person. And I have 'interviewed ' Howard

Zinn at least three times. This slender volume is comprised

of previously presented edited versions of three speeches and an

essay dealing with the artists/citizens' response to war. The title

speech ends with Philip Berrigan's poem in honor of homeless advocate

Mitchell Snyder who committed suicide:

Some stood up once and sat down,

Some walked a mile and walked away,

Some stood up twice then sat down,

I've had it, they said.

Some walked two miles, then walked away,

It's too much, they cried.

Some stood and stood and stood.

they were taken for fools

they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked and walked and walked.

They walked the earth

they walked the waters

they walked the air.

Why do you stand?

they were asked, and

why do you walk?

Because of the children, they said, and

because of the heart, and

because of the bread.


the cause

in the heart's beat

and the children born

and the risen bread.

And for those who argue that calling the Bushites to account aids

the USA's enemies, consider Howard Zinn's contention that criticism

of the government is the highest act of patriotism. (RB)


With Dwight Macdonald – ed. Michael

Wreszin (181 PP, University Press of Mississippi)

A few months ago I ran across Conversations with William Gass

published by the University Press of Mississippi and serendipitously

learned of the fine series of books collecting interviews and conversations

with some wonderful writers, like the influential Dwight Macdonald,

at one time the editor of the Partisan Review. Twenty years after

his death, Macdonald's name still resonates in the contemporary

cultural conversation that goes on in opinion leading journals and

periodicals. He was a thinker concerned with what is now called

"dumbing" down of 'mass' or 'pop' culture—terms

he is credited with coining. As Macdonald's biographer and the editor

of this volume, Michael Wrezsin notes, "Macdonald was at his

best in conversation, His students note that he was seemingly nervous

and awkward at the podium during a lecture. His forte was at the

seminar table in conversation. There he was stimulating and provocative."

That makes this book especially valuable. (RB)


Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain : New Poems

– Charles Bukowski (297 PP, Ecco)

When Bukowski died he left a treasure trove of unpublished work,

apparently purposely withheld for posthumous publication. John Martin

Bukowski's long-time editor at Black Sparrow Press began bringing

the poems out last year with sifting through the madness for

the Word, the line, the way, and now this second collection

in a projected series of five, presents 140 quintessential Bukowski

poems. Such as "Alone in this Room":

I am alone in this room as the world

washes over me.

I sit and wait and wonder.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth

as I sit and wait in this room.

I can no longer see the walls.

everything has changed into something else.

I can not joke about this,

I cannot explain this as

the world washes over me.

I don't care if you believe me because

I have lost interest in that too.

I am in a place where I have never been before.

I am alone in a different place that

does not include other faces,

other human beings.

it is happening to me now

in a space within a space as

I sit and wait alone in this room.

Charles Bukowski died

in 1994 at the age of 73 having published 45 books of poetry and

prose. The beat goes on. (RB)


– Antonio Munoz Molina, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

(385 PP, Harcourt)

To claim that Munoz Molina is one of Spain's most popular and respected

writers no doubt will aid his climb up the American bestseller lists.

But I expect that it is reviews by the wonderfully talented (and

unheralded) Michael Pye (Taking Lives, The Pieces from Berlin)

that will put Sepharad in to the hands of appreciative

readers. In his recent New

York Times

piece he proclaims, "There are books that put the writer

at risk like a high-wire act and books that self-destruct and others

that are minefields ready to take the reader down. And then there

is Sepharad, a wonderfully alarming book on every one of these counts.

It is a net of images and horrors, of lives seen at surprising angles,

all bound to the subject of Spain -- the land the rabbis identified

with the biblical Sepharad -- and the fearful business of leaving

it." Munoz Molina's novel draws from the Sephardic diaspora,

the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges to tell a twentieth century

story that is a fabulous blending of fact and fiction. Don't let

the fact that the author is a foreigner stop you from reading this

book—the highly Margaret Sayers Peden translates. (RB)


Best American Essays 2003 edited by Anne

Fadiman (338 PP, Houghton Mifflin)

The original Best American series began 1915 and was first

augmented in 1986 to include the Best American Essays.

There have been other arguably less useful additions (Sports

Writing, Travel Writing, Mystery Writing, Recipes, Non Required

Reading) but Best Stories and Best Essays

have remained dependably and occasionally brilliantly useful annual

anthologies. This year's entry guest edited by American Scholar's

Anne Fadiman is no exception. In her introduction, she quotes Phillip

Lopate (who didn't make this year's cut) saying the personal essay

is voice of middle age. This by way of explaining that personal

essays seem to be written by people with more than a few gray hairs—

rather than 25-year-olds who are finishing their first novels. That

seems to be quite true (or self-fulfilling) in the 2003 round up.

The 24 essays included are by Andre Aciman, Donald Antrim, Joseph

Epstein, Ian Frazier, Atul Gawande, Ed Hoagland, Jane Kramer, Judith

Thurman, Katha Pollitt, Susan Sontag, John Edgar Wideman and others.

Here's a bit of Wideman's "Whose War" first published

in Harper's:

Hear what I'm saying. We ain't going nowhere, as the boys in

the hood be saying. Nowhere. If you promote all the surviving Afghans

to the status of honorary American, Mr. President, where exactly

on the bus does that leave me. When do I get paid. When can I expect

my invitation to the ranch. I hear Mr. Putin's wearing jungle jangle

silver spurs around his dacha. Heard you fixed him up with an eight

figure advance on his memoirs. Is it true he's iced up to be the

Marlboro man after he retires from Russia. Anything left under the

table for me. And mine.

Amen. (RB)


Rising : Frank Lloyd Wright, E. J. Kaufmann, and America's Most

Extraordinary House – Franklin Toker

(475 PP, Knopf)

This is, as the dust jacket points out, is biography of the house

and masterpiece that Frank

Lloyd Wright designed for wealthy department store mogul EJ

Kaufman in 1937. At 475 pages, it better be a fascinating story

—it happens to include key figures of the '30s such as Frida

Kahlo, Ayn Rand, Henry Luce, FDR, William Randolph Hearst and even

Albert Einstein. Author Toker

has been working on this history of the most famous private house

in the world, which became a fundamental icon of American life,

for nineteen years and as he points out his book "looks at

Fallingwater as a work of art, as a triumph of public relations,

as a popular creation of the Depression (along with Superman

and Gone with the Wind), and as a weapon that both the

architect and client used to overcome their private humiliations."



Sucker – David Denby (337 PP, Little


I suspect that everyone who reads The New Yorker has a

favorite staff writer that they love to hate—for many people

it seems to be Adam Gopnik. Me, I find David Denby and his jejune

scribblings to be easily dismissable. And when they rise to the

level of a book such as Great Books and now this "insightful

beautifully written memoir," well, you get it. American

Sucker "chronicles Denby's personal wild financial experiment

testing his distinctly American faith in capitalism while confronting

him with the competitiveness and hubris that always drive us to

want more." If you go for that story you are a bigger rube

than he is. (RB)

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