Monday, December 31, 2007

Writers of the Year 2007
The biggest book event of the year was the publishing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final novel in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. But the international hoohaw shouldn't obscure Rowling's literary achievement: it all happened because of the actual books that individual people actually read (though some did so in couples and groups, reading aloud or listening to audiobooks, sometimes while reading along in the text--all very literary experiences largely missing from our culture for a long time.) Rowling wrote a series of books that increased in complexity and meaning along with the increasing ages of the characters the books were chiefly about, with important things to say for our time. Has anyone ever done this before? This is an achievement to be celebrated.

Doris Lessing's achievements were celebrated in 2007 when she received the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is a champion of literature in our time, and she made a brilliant case for it in her Nobel address, as well as in essays published in her 2004 collection of nonfiction pieces, Time Bites. She was brought up in rural Africa, has lived in London for many years, and has traveled widely. So her point of view is striking and informed: she sees people in rich societies with easy access to books losing that profound education to consumer obsession, addictive video games and blogs, while people (especially children) in poor societies starving and begging for books and literature.

Lessing had the courage to follow where her writing took her, even to the science fiction series I admire. She had the courage to face hard personal truths and express boldly what others obscured in The Golden Notebook, and then to face down those who wanted to turn it into an ideological tract. In her interviews as well, she takes no nonsense that might limit the complexities and generous spirit she champions in literature. She also writes very well about cats (that's her in the last photo, in 1956.)

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R.I.P. 2007

Norman Mailer became famous at age 25 with his first novel, The Naked and the Dead, about World War II. Being famous and in that strata of people and events helped define his life. I became aware of him in the 1960s, when he was a frequent guest on TV talk shows (yes, they had actual authors talking at length in those days, not just plugging a book) and was writing about politics. I marched with him (without ever seeing him, of course) at the Pentagon in 1968, the sort of subject of his famous "non-fiction novel," The Armies of the Night.

I was impressed by his passionate defense of writer Henry Miller against the attacks of Kate Millet in the first wave of womens lib. It got me to read Miller. I liked hearing him talk, and reading his essays, as in Advertisements for Myself. I somehow understood the writer's insecurity which came across as ego, though there was a lot about him I didn't understand.

I was impressed by his belief in The Novel, and in the quest to write a great one. I didn't actually read much of his fiction, though. Some of what he said and wrote remain guideposts for me to this day. And a lot I take seriously, and admire for his intellectual courage, but can't go there with him.

In his late 80s he remained thoughtful, lucid and impressive in interviews. He kept writing to the end, and was embarked on an immense project of fiction that he felt was his truest work. That's a good way for a writer to go.
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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was unique, which caused him a lot of problems early on. Even before he'd refined his very individual style, he seemed to sense the likelihood of failure when he created his crazed, destitute science fiction writer alter ego, Kilgore Trout.

But his novels Cat's Cradle, Good Bless You Mr. Rosewater and Mother Night--with that unique point of view, that gallows humor and unique style (so apparently simple, almost childlike)--got the attention of other writers, and a job teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he quickly became a legend.
His breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse Five, was a strange but strangely apt combination of sci-fi and realism about the total destruction of Dresden in the World War II firebombing no one wanted to talk about (although I'd read about it in a war comic book in the 50s.) He was a survivor of it as a P.O.W.--not quite as hapless as his hero, Billy Pilgrim, but just as young. (That's his Army photo down there.)
Later he became as famous and popular for his lectures as his novels, and as a writer, lecturer and social critic, he became our Mark Twain. He even came to resemble Twain. Some of his books are judged better than others--he himself graded his novels from A to D. But I've read everything he published with profit and much delight and admiration.
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Molly Ivins was a fountain of wit and sense. She was big-hearted, clear-eyed and courageous. She told the truth when it was popular and when it wasn't. And she was fun. If we have to have Texas, then we damn well needed to have Molly Ivins. In this already lunatic election year, we're going to miss her.

She faced cancer that killed her with the same courage she faced the president she called Shrub. She had that incredible smile from first to last, as you can see. She has a shelf full of wonderful books out there. Get some and see.

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Grace Paley was a New York writer through and through. When I met her in the late 60s she was already known for her short stories and her political activism, and she excelled at both for the rest of her life. She became a living treasure, recognized as such by Governor Mario Cuomo. She died in 2007.
David Halberstam died in a car accident in 2007. I met him in Boston when he was doing interviews for his first book, The Best and The Brightest, about hubris among those who brought us Vietnam. It's become the conventional wisdom, though historians have refined and tempered his journalistic analysis. He first made his name as a reporter in Vietnam, and after this book became a popular and respected author. Many know him as much for his books on sports as on politics.
Ingmar Bergman is best known as a film director, and secondly as a theatre director. But he also wrote many of those famous movies, and he has other published works as a writer. He died in July, on the same day as another classic European film director, Michelangelo Antonioni.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was one of the last of several fading breeds: the public intellectual, the man of letters. He first made his mark as a political historian (on FDR) and then political essayist. He contributed to speeches and was an advisor to President Kennedy. He continued to write important books for the rest of his long life, and his recently published diaries show how involved he was among the social and political elite. I will remember him for his indispensable books on President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and especially for the book of essays he published in the early 1960s that I read when I was in high school, and had a profound effect on my political orientation from then on, called The Politics of Hope.
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Friday, December 28, 2007

Londoners in a shelter during the 1940 Blitz
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Some Books of Note

A selection of titles from fall and winter 2007.

These are some of the books from this past fall that I requested because they sounded interesting, not only to me but potentially to book review editors. Some of them turned out to be interesting but too academic or otherwise not quite accessible enough for even the informed and interested general readerships I usually write for, while to my sorrow, others I would have liked to write about—like Owen Flanagan’s The Really Hard Problem—didn’t get assigned, and I otherwise couldn’t find the time to give them the longer consideration they deserve. So in the guise of a year end or publishing season end summary, I’m clearing off my “in” shelf.

But to make the year-end thing credible, I'll add links to books I reviewed this year that I recommend.

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Social Studies

THE REALLY HARD PROBLEM: Meaning in a Material World, by Owen Flanagan. MIT Press.

Consciousness, or mind, is the hard problem, and also the topic that is threading through several sciences, the arts and what is often categorized as New Age spirituality, although this includes the very ancient inquiries of Buddhism. It is also re-focusing contemporary philosophy, specifically in the writing of Owen Flanagan. This thoughtful, up to the minute and accessibly written book outlines questions that are central to contemporary researches and also of important fascination to us as people trying to make sense of life in these suddenly uniting states. It does so in under 300 pages (including the kind of chapter notes you read on their own with pleasure and profit), and in six chapters, exploring “Meaningful and Enchanted Lives,” finding meaning in the natural world, Buddhism and science, “Normative Mind Science? Psychology, Neuroscience, and the Good Life,” the new science of happiness, and the intersection of nature and spirituality. This book is not only one of the most fascinating of the fall, but a contribution to an ongoing process of developing understandings and strategies of soul that can actually contribute to getting us through the 21st century and beyond.

PSYCHOTHERAPY WITHOUT THE SELF by Mark Epstein. Yale University Press.

Epstein’s earlier books on this subject—the intersection of Buddhist thought and psychotherapy-- Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, were pitched to a more general audience. This book is more scholarly, and goes into the subject more deeply. For me it doesn’t advance the ball, especially because Epstein continues to see psychotherapy as primarily Freudian. That it may be, but I find myself more interested in Jung—who I perhaps naively see as a better fit with Buddhism.

THE HIDDEN SENSE: Synesthesia in Art and Science by Cretien van Campen. MIT Press.

The different ways that people learn and experience the world by employing different dominant senses has been an important topic explored in the past decade. This book charts a new frontier: the experiences of people who “hear music in colors” or “taste voices,” mixing experiences and even our ideas of separate senses. Now that brain scans have revealed that the phenomena of synesthesia is real, (though the research is still fairly primitive) Van Campen explores the research and ramifications, inevitably crossing and re-crossing borders, including those between science and art. This is a frontier study of a potentially exciting and revealing phenomenon.

BLACK MASS: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray. STRAW DOGS: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray. Both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

John Gray is the most provocative author I've read this year. Straw Dogs (published several years ago in the UK, apparently revised and published in the U.S. this fall as a paperback original) is a series of terse, definite and challenging statements about the contemporary world, human nature and the ideas, ideologies and systems we use and have used in recent centuries to make sense of it all and to take action. Black Mass focuses on one of its assertions with a more detailed historical treatment. Gray sees things in black and white, though mostly in black. He challenges some cherished societal assumptions, and one of his major premises is that the widespread sense of "progress" and that sense of evolution is both delusional and a paradoxical product of belief in apocalyptic end time. His assumption that the failure of Soviet Communism proves the failure and pernicious nature of utopian thinking is familiar, but otherwise I find his assertions fertile (and often pretty scary), even as wrongheaded as some may be. I expect to be looking at these books and writing about them for years to come.

THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, By Naomi Klein. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. This is probably the most important book I read this year, as well as one of the best.

SOLDIER'S HEART: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Farrar, Strau and Giroux.

Thoreau Cove at Walden Pond
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I TO MYSELF: An Annotated Selection from the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. Yale University Press.

: A History, by Philip F. Gura. Hill & Wang.

Thoreau’s journals are a barely explored gold mine, as Cramer’s Introduction notes. This handsome volume of selections is both a contribution to literary scholarship and a book to keep and peruse for the nuggets contained within. Thoreau and Emerson are of course the best known names associated with American Transcendentalism, but as Gura’s accessible history shows, not the only interesting writers or participants in a contentious and malleable movement so important to American literature. Both of these books are important contributions to appreciating this golden era.

I EXPLAIN A FEW THINGS: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda. A Bilingual Edition edited by Ilan Stavans. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The Preface is correct: in the 1970s, around the time of his Nobel Prize, Neruda was a star on American campuses. (I’m pretty sure my first professional published piece was on him.) This selection from his entire career offers translations by Alastair Reed (who with Ben Belitt were the principal translators of 70s era collections), Robert Bly (some of whose translations were available then, and which I much preferred), Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Philip Levine, John Felstiner, Jack Schmitt, Margaret Sayers Peden and others. Editor Stavans finds the late (70s) poems wanting in his up to date overview preface, yet he translates one of the latest, about the effect of the Vietnam war: “they come, will come, they came,/ to kill the world within us.” They’re still at it.

ON ELOQUENCE by Denis Donoghue. Yale.

This is one of those absorbing books to read and savor, reminding us of literature we love and introducing us to aspects of literary works we don’t know as well, that we might well love. His past books revealed Donoghue as a scholar and reader who writes well, and the topic of eloquence allows him both breadth and concentration. It’s an important and neglected topic, in an era of bad writing and dense, very specific literary writing—an era that needs beauty as well as inspiration and instruction. With all the references and assertions (some I find myself arguing with) it's an active but rewarding read.

AUGUST WILSON CENTURY CYCLE by August Wilson. Theatre Communications Group.

London 1940
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While the immediate emotional responses to the events in New York on September 11, 2001 were understandable, subsequent hysteria and particularly the actions taken because of it seemed to me even at the time as more than excessive. Perhaps cowardly, particularly in light of the response of the British people to the events that only began on September 7, 1940—the relentless bombing campaign by German planes and missiles known as the Blitz. Stansky contends that the British response in just the first 12 hours of that day transformed its social and political context, and set the attitudes that would result in winning the war. But he also shows that the British were more prepared than the conventional wisdom says. In this relatively short book, the descriptions of that first day are often absorbing and a real contribution to history, as are his conclusions. But I would have liked a few additional chapters on the Blitz as a whole, for it seems to me that the British response over time (as well as that of allies and adversaries) has important lessons for us today as well.

THE GREAT AWAKENING: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America by Thomas S. Kidd. Yale.

This is a solid contribution to the historical understanding of an important contemporary force in America. Since it ends with the American Revolution (though Kidd provides some subsequent overview) it doesn’t yet cover the crucial relationship of evangelical Christianity with science and technology, or its political impact on the nation, but this background can help in the understanding of that essential confrontation.

AUTO MANIA: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment by Tom McCarthy. Yale.
A well-researched source book on these important subjects.

THE AMERICAN DISCOVERY OF EUROPE by Jack D. Forbes. Illinois University Press.

The Jerde designed Mall of America. Kowinski
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ARCHITECTURE OR TECHNO-UTOPIA: Politics After Modernism by Felicity D. Scott.
BRANDSCAPES: Architecture in the Experience Economy by Anna Klingmann.
Both published by MIT Press.

Scott excavates and narrates designers and architectures both well known and little remembered from the late 60s and early 70s, in a context and in language of primary interest to academics. I was interested to see Buckminster Fuller taken seriously within 20th century design, though his theoretical context is not fully stated. Klingmann’s approach is more generally accessible and more contemporary. I appreciated her detailed treatment of architectural guru John Jerde, but her description of how Faneuil Hall Marketplace came about is a little off.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

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August Wilson Century Cycle
By August Wilson
Theatre Communications Group

T’is the season of the boxed set, but this one has more significance than the usual holiday gift repackaging. This is the first physical embodiment of a singular achievement—ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, which together tell a long story of African American survival. It is the first time the plays of August Wilson have been collected to tell that story chronologically.

Since Wilson completed the cycle shortly before his untimely death in 2005, the nature and extent of this achievement is slowly being recognized. No American playwright of any color has come close to a series of ten major plays like this, or participated in the acclaimed productions of all their plays. Many others helped this process in vital ways, but even so it’s fair to say that August Wilson transformed and enriched American theatre as no individual has ever done.

From “Gem of the Ocean” (set in 1904) to “Radio Golf” (1997) and including “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney” and “The Piano Lesson”--each play is carefully true to its time, yet there are few historic events even mentioned, and the characters are ordinary people—predominately in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. The most obvious virtue of these plays is their language—a version of black speech that is at once authentic and Wilson’s own poetry-- and this alone makes these plays unusually good to read as well as to see performed.

With this set it’s possible to feel the changes and the continuities in African American culture through the century. The reader is aided in this by recurring and even legendary characters, and by ancestors and descendants in the same family—and perhaps most hauntingly, in the fate of a single house.

In this boxed set, each play has a foreword by such luminaries as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, playwright Tony Kushner, writer Ishmael Reed, actor Laurence Fishburne and former theatre critic Frank Rich. Kushner writes that Wilson grappled with theological questions: “Eugene O’Neill, the playwright August Wilson most resembles, did that.” Reed writes that Wilson’s “ear was so good that his character’s words could be set to music.” Fishburne quotes favorite lines from “Two Trains Running” (he was in its first production, along with Samuel L. Jackson): “Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back holds up.”

There couldn’t be a better introduction to Wilson’s work than the intro to the series by New Yorker drama critic John Lahr. The cover for the set has a great photo of the author, taken in the last year or so of his life. The set lists at $200 and can be purchased for $126, so it’s definitely a gift item. And if you don’t have someone to give it to, think about gifting your favorite local library.