The Morning News

Reading Book Digest: September 17, 2007

Last week I made mention of the appearance of George Saunders on the Late Show With David Letterman and cited an account of that unlikely happenstance by one of Saunders’s former students, Jeff Parker.

Well, George’s editor at Riverhead, Sean McDonald, was kind enough to send us the link to the Letterman segment in question.

Thanks, Sean.

Julia Alvarez, one of our favorite Vermonters, was moved to pass along an essay by Mexican-American writer Richard Rodriguez. I found this passage stirring and cutting to the bone:
America is a country where children are raised to leave home, and each generation is expected to seek its own way. The great pronoun of the United States is the Protestant pronoun—the “I”. America teaches its children independence and the bravery of the solitary path. The burden of life in America is loneliness. Not coincidentally, Mexican women, illegally in the United States, have been hired into the cold heart of America to sit with the young and the old.
I wonder if the knives are being sharpened in the background as Dave Eggers (a person that some inchoate segment of the literary rabble love to hate) has won the remunerative, if not prestigious, Heinz award. Of Eggers, the awards committee has this to say: “A novelist whose meteoric commercial and critical success has helped propel him into the worlds of philanthropy, advocacy and education.” But no matter how you slice it and whatever the quirks Eggers and his cadre possess, it is hard to argue with his accomplishments and his good works in particular.

Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Book Digest A sentimental view would suggest that the Caribbean’s sun and shore is an idyllic setting where the seeds of literature may propagate; a hard-nosed take would suggest its flawed, male-dominated societies are formative in the extraordinary literature of Caribbean women writers. It’s not an issue I intend to resolve here, but it’s something to think about.

As her work to date exhibits, Haitian-born Danticat (The Dew Breaker) is a wonderful writer. Part of this memoir is already known to the world, as her beloved uncle, a Christian minister, was infelicitously handled by the INS in Miami and died of a heart attack in their custody in 2004. The main part of Danticat’s family story is about her love and admiration for her father and uncle and the separation and reunion with her mother, father, and younger siblings in America, which she renders as artfully as her highly regarded fiction.

» Read an excerpt from Brother I’m Dying

(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits and Obsessions by Steve Almond
Book Digest We are told publicist Almond is a New York Times bestselling author, which we guess explains his ability to continue getting his books published. His publisher’s, uh, clever copy asks:
How does Steve Almond get himself into so much trouble? Could it be his incessant moralizing? His generally poor posture? The fact that he was raised by a pack of wolves? Frankly, we haven’t got a clue. What we do know is that Almond has a knack for converting his dustups into essays that are both funny and furious.
We weren’t aware of Almond’s quixotic jousting except for his putting his adjunct teaching position at Boston College at risk by protesting Condoleezza Rice’s appearance there. Also, we duly note Almond’s admiration and reverence for Kurt Vonnegut, which we hope results in something beneficial for Almond’s various facile posturings.

» Read an excerpt from (Not That You Asked)

The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue and Michael Green, edited by Colin Calloway
Book Digest Viking Books has a proposed an eight-volume history of Native Americans, of which this tome is one of the initial offerings. It is the sad story (well, when it comes to America’s indigenous peoples, they are all sad) of the forced relocation in the 1830s of the Cherokee tribe from their tribal homes in the southern Appalachians to eastern Oklahoma. It’s a story that bears telling; historians Perdue and Green tell it concisely and well.

» Read an excerpt from The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears

Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Book Digest The affliction memoir of the week is by the brother of Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors) who has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. This is not a rebuttal, though it does offer a different view of the wacky family portrayed in Running With Scissors. Robison dropped out of high school, worked for the rock band Kiss (creating their fire-breathing guitars), moved on to a major toy company, and ultimately ended up with his own business restoring and repairing high-end cars. Asperger’s, like so many neurological deficits and syndromes, was not a diagnosis when Robison grew up, and it wasn’t until he was 40 that he was made aware of his condition. Which, of course, affected the way he understood and responded to his stigma as a social deviant.

» Read an excerpt from Look Me in the Eye

Think With the Senses Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense edited by Robert Storr
Book Digest The Venice Biennale or International Exhibition of Visual Arts, which, as the name suggests, occurs every two years, is one of the most prestigious and well-publicized serious international art events. This, the 52nd exhibition, had as its mandate a definition of the 21st century via both established cultures and work from so-called developing countries. Assembled by former Museum of Modern Art curator Storr, this substantial two-volume set includes 100 artists, and is both an exhibition catalogue and a compendium of essays on new artists and trends.

Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews edited by Lewis M. Dabney
Book Digest Wilson was a major American literary critic from the 1920s until his death in 1972—before media transmogrified from a mainstream into a shitstream. One might safely characterize Wilson’s presence in the cultural firmament as iconic (he talked like a duck and walked like a duck), and he was counted among that small portion of America’s intelligentsia that saw literature as having a wider scope. There are those who demur about Wilson’s legacy (Joseph Epstein, for one), and his marriage and divorce to the underappreciated Mary McCarthy exposed his foibles and peccadilloes—but there is no doubt his take on mid-century American literature and culture contains much value. As usual, the Library of America (an idea that Wilson promulgated) gives us two fine and useful volumes.

Red Rover by Deidre McNamer
Book Digest McNamer (who also wrote Rima in the Weeds) is a wonderful writer living in Montana, which no doubt accounts for her less-than-household-name status—that and her not having published in seven years. Her new opus has three Montana men who served the U.S. in World War II: FBI agents Aidan Tierney and Roland Taliaferro and B-29 pilot Neil Tierney. After the war, Agent Tierney is found dead, in an apparent suicide; years later, agent Taliaferro and the surviving Tierney meet as old men and finally resolve the death of their compadre.

McNamer tells the tale episodically, as a group of short stories with crisp, accurate prose. Fellow Montanan Thomas McGuane blurbs: “Red Rover possesses such range and immediacy that I wondered how in a novel this length McNamer managed to have them both without sacrificing the very moving and humane story she tells. Amazingly, not a stitch is dropped.”

» Read an excerpt from Red Rover

The Baroque World of Fernando Botero by John Sillevis, David Elliott, and Edward J. Sullivan
Book Digest While most well-known as the epicenter of the Western Hemisphere’s drug wars, Colombia can boast as its own Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, hip-shaking Shakira, and not least, painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. A retrospective in Montreal earlier this year is responsible for this compendium of 100 works that were drawn from the artist’s private collection, as well as three illuminating essays on various aspects of Botero’s oeuvre.

» Read an excerpt from The Baroque World of Fernando Botero

The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot by Naomi Wolf
Book Digest Like many, Naomi Wolf is both frightened and angered by the depredations of the current administration and its friends in Congress. Wolf’s tome is in the spirit of American Revolution pamphleteering (á la Thomas Paine), and she argues that there are obvious parallels from the 20th century’s worst dictatorships and the events in the United States in the past six years. In addition to her indictment, she has embarked on the American Freedom Campaign—”a grassroots efforts to ensure that presidential candidates pledge to uphold the constitution and protect our liberties from further erosion.”

» Read an excerpt [pdf] from The End of America

On Suicide Bombing by Talal Asad
Book Digest Suicide bombing is by now associated with fanatical Muslims and their putative “culture of death”—which belies the fact that other countries and cultures have utilized such bombing (e.g., kamikazes in the Pacific theater of World War II). In all cases, the practitioners are alleged to place a low value on human life—which is another way to dehumanize them. Asad (Genealogies of Religion and Formation of the Secular) is a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, a scholar of religious traditions, and is particularly interested in the religious associations made with this modern form of terrorism. Given the current disequilibrium and instability in numerous places around the world, this is a useful and potentially eye-opening investigation.

» Read an excerpt from On Suicide Bombing

The Guardians by Ana Castillo
Book Digest Castillo (of So Far from God) made it into the mainstream as one of a trio of Chicana women labeled the Las Girlfriends in the mid-’90s. She is also the winner of an American Book Award (for The Mixquiahuala Letters), and is currently teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her newest novel is set in a New Mexican border town, and her deft poetic prose gives us humane and humorous snapshots of life for Chicanos in the Southwest, bringing home the full irony of the Mexican aphorism, “So far from God, so close to the United States.”


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