Thursday, February 17, 2005

First book recommendation of 2005

Book recommendation: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky.

I'm halfway through this book and already I've started recommending it to friends. Twenty-five years ago Lansky set out to save Yiddish books from destruction. This account of his efforts is funny and charming and inspiring. It is a delightful read. More to follow.
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Book 15 of '05: Sophie's Choice by William Styron.
I finished this book a few days ago. I liked it a lot more 30 years ago than I do now. I'll explore why later. But let's just say I am uneasy about the ambivalence of this book toward the horror of the Holocaust.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Little Matty, the Red Fox of Kinderhook

Book 14 of '05: Martin Van Buren, Ted Widmer.

I have slogged my way through many an epic biography. Few men (or women) warrant the excess represented by a biography of several hundred pages. Historians seem drawn to such excess, which generally results in an surfeit of boredom and a shortage of reader interest. Yes, there are exceptions. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ and William Manchester’s multi-volume history of William Churchill all come to mind.

Two recent series have made a virtue of the small book. Widmer’s Martin Van Buren belongs to the American Presidents series by Times Books. The series is uniformly well-written, balanced, insightful and brief. Widmer's Martin Van Buren weighs in at less than 200 pages, including a page of milestones in Van Buren's life, a bibliography and the index. I have especially enjoyed and appreciated the biographies of such little-known presidents as Van Buren, Chester Alan Arthur and Warren G. Harding (written by John Dean).

Another superb “mini” series is the Penguin Lives biographies of famous men and women, ranging from Buddha to Elvis, from Joan of Arc to Crazy Horse.

I offer two quotes from Martin Van Buren:

“Still, there is no evidence that Van Buren ever committed any indiscretions during his long career at the center of Washington society—he managed to combined perfectly the seeming capacity for sin with the refusal to commit it . . .”

In remarking on a vindictive act by political allies against rival De Witt Clinton, Widmer tells us: “Van Buren exploded, ‘There is such a thing in politics as killing a man too dead!’”

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, I traveled to Boston for two days last week. My schedule did not allow time for “booking,” but I did pay an all-to-brief visit to the Brattle Book Shop. Tucked away on a side street in downtown Boston, Brattle is a well-respected purveyor of used, rare and antiquarian books. Its general dishevelment and down-at-the-heels air keep me from placing it on the shortlist of my favorite shops. That aside, it is clearly worthy of a visit during any journey to Boston. It’s evident that treasures rest on its shelves, treasures that appear to be reasonably priced.

Brattle has three floors, the uppermost housing its rare book room. I was most entranced by its open-air shopping. While it is not unusual for a used book shop to place a cart or two outside the entrance, generally in the hope of luring shoppers inside, Brattle's outdoor arrangements emulate what I envision the outdoor book stalls of Europe to be. It features a combination of permanent and temporary shelves and carts situated on a vacant lot next to the store. During my visit, there were far more shoppers outside than in. Although it was an appealing setting, the unseasonably warm, sunshiny day in mid-February was the most likely explanation for the many book lovers choosing to shop alfresco.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller, Howlin' Wolf and Sophie

Good Bye, Arthur Miller. Destined to rank among American’s leading dramatists, may your plays find audiences for decades to come.

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Book 13 of '05: Moanin’ at Midnight, The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf, James Segrest and Mark Hoffman.

I finished this book Tuesday while on a quick trip to Boston (more later). I found it to be a serviceable, but unexceptional biography of an American original. Wolf (born Chester Burnett) and his voice were a force of nature.

This biography, along with recent biographies of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, provide us with a proper appreciation of blues contribution to rock and roll—in America and in England—as well as furnishing us with a reason for Wolf’s preeminent status as a blue artist. This man belongs on Mount Bluesmore.

I take exception with two aspects of the book. The descriptions of key recording sessions are well-researched and largely resolve the identity of musicians in the studio when Wolf’s greatest recordings were made. But, these passages often smack of inside baseball. The authors clearly understand the intricacies of music, but what do descriptions of “belching saxophones, tom-tom drumming, and . . . brilliantly off-kilter guitar” or “a hypnotic one-chord romp” or “loping bass and sizzling drums, and Wolf’s throbbing harp” mean, except the authors have access to a thesaurus?

Segrest and Hoffman also rely heavily on interviews with an assortment of blues musicians and hangers on. The availability of primary source material is an asset for any biographer, but one that must be handled cautiously. Among those interviewed are certain to be musicians speaking from pique, jealously and dislike and who have one eye firmly on their place in the pantheon of blues artist. Which is to say that all interviews do not contribute to our understanding of Howlin’ Wolf.

My quibbles are minor. A biography of Wolf was long overdue and this book is most welcome. The discography provided by the authors is especially instructive and is certain to cost me considerable coin.

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I am currently reading Sophie’s Choice by William Styron as I continue to devote January and February to re-reading works of fiction. I distinctly remember the nub of Sophie’s Choice, but did not recall Styron’s style, which is dense as this passage amply demonstrates:

“Poland is a beautiful, heart-wrenching, soul-split country which in many ways (I came to see through Sophie’s eyes and memory that summer, and through my own eyes in later years) resembles or conjures up images of the American South—or at least the South of other, not-so-distant times. It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness—the quagmiry but haunting monochrome of the Narew River swampland, for example, with its look and feel of a murky savanna on the Carolina coast, or the Sunday hush on a muddy back street in a village of Galicia, where by only the smallest eyewink of the imagination one might see whisked to a lonesome crossroads hamlet in Arkansas these ramshackle, weather-bleached little houses, crookedly carpentered, set upon shrubless plots of clay where scrawny chickens fuss and peck—but in the spirit of the nation, her indwellingly ravaged and melancholy heart, tormented into its shape like that of the Old South out of adversity, penury and defeat.”

Whew. I like fewer words, more periods and a more direct line to the story. More to come.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Book 12 of '05: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was John le Carré’s third novel and his most important. It’s popularity with critics and the reading public established him as the master of the espionage genre. A position he held for more than three decades.

Three ingredients contributed to le Carré’s long-term success. His novels were well written with splendid pacing and memorable characters. For the first time, we could sneak a peek behind the curtain of clandestine operations as le Carré introduced us to the tradecraft of espionage and took us inside the minds of spies and their handlers.

Finally, le Carré’s novels were more than mere thrillers. He brought a political conscience to his work that was rare for this genre. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold characters instruct us as to the importance of the state over the individual in Communist philosophy. Yet, in the end, it is the Democratic state that betrays and sacrifices the individual to advance its interests.

This balance, which bordered on detachment, gave le Carré’s novels an extraordinarily fine tension. Not the tension that emerges from mere suspense, but the tension that springs from the balancing of titanic forces, from the latent hostility between opposing governments or philosophies. Tension that, without remorse or hesitation, threatens to tear apart the lives of individuals caught in its web.

This was the strength and the appeal of writer John le Carré.


If you admire le Carré, you are almost to certain to appreciate the novels of Alan Furst. He is the best writer in the genre today.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Elmore Leonard The Avatar of Cool

Book 11 of ’05: Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard.

Don’t make the mistake of dismissing Elmore Leonard. Eminently readable, Leonard is a master of the craft of writing.

Leonard’s characters are defined by their actions and their tastes in clothes, movies and music. Action not exposition drives his narrative, which is never slowed down by lush descriptions of sunsets. Leonard’s most elaborate descriptions are reserved for someone’s clothing—from the top: a tab collar or a dress shirt buttoned with no tie; to bottom: pale socks set against dark dress shoes.

There is a cinematic quality to Leonard’s writing, which explains why so many of his novels have been translated into film. In some writers (I’m thinking Michael Crichton), this method fails spectacularly; you have the inescapable feeling the author has gotten lazy and is combining the film script with the novel. Not Leonard, his pared down, rock-and-roll paced, cinematic style keeps us reading.

Each of Leonard’s novels—whatever the ultimate subject—is about “cool”; who’s cool, who isn’t, who wants to be and who never will be. Chili Palmer is cool. Leo the drycleaner never will be. Ray Bones thinks he’s cool, but Chili knows better and so do we.


Get Shorty is a masterful send-up of Hollywood and the way movies get, or don’t get, made. It’s appropriate, then, that the film version with John Travolta, Danny De Vito, Rene Russo and Gene Hackman is a delightfully entertaining film. Read the book and then watch the movie—that’s not a recommendation you will often receive.

While on the subject of books into movies, director Martin Scorsese’s film version of Edith Wharton’s novel, The Age of Innocence, also comes highly recommended. It stars the always watchable Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and, in a piece of inspired casting, Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Room to Read: The Gift of Literarcy

Here's an Internet site worthy of your consideration:

Room to Read's stated goal is to intervene early in the lives of children and help provide them with an education and the lifelong gift of literacy. They have developed a three-pronged approach to the problem of rural education: