Some of the best books I’ve ever read have often been slipped to me, like contraband, by avid readers who were themselves hooked on the printed stuff. I had the good fortune to be a student under William Gass, and one day after a long teacher/student meeting in his office, he walked over to his bookshelf, signaled for me to come over, and pulled down John Hawkes’ hallucinatory novel, The Lime Twig, about a desperate group of men in post-World War II London who steal a racehorse.
I took literary recommendations from Gass seriously. Not only is he a spectacularly voracious reader, but he is also a remarkable writer. I’d read his book On Being Blue, a philosophical meditation on that color, the year before I’d started studying under him. That book had been loaned to me by my friend Peter. “This one,” Peter had said by his bookshelf, “will blow you away.” He was right too.
There are thousands of new books out there; every summer the new line of must-reads and beach-reads comes out, and it’s hard to keep up. So rather than focus on what’s new, I invited Scene writers to offer their own recommendations, no matter how current or how old.
Originally published in 1940, The Big Con (Anchor Books) by David W. Maurer is basically a how-to guide for conning big money out of rich and gullible “marks.” Maurer was, of all things, a linguist who became fascinated by the language and slang of the underworld. As he met up with and gained the trust of con men with names like The High Ass Kid and Limehouse Chappie, he began to learn more than their language; he also learned their cons and something of their worldview. This is a picture of an underworld that has passed away, lovingly recorded by a man who, most of all, loved the music of the words used by intelligent thieves to describe their work.
Peter Godwin grew up as an African and as a Rhodesian, and his book Mukiwa (HarperCollins) is the story of how this white offspring of liberal parents in a white-ruled British colony in Southern Africathe present-day Zimbabwegradually came to the opinion that he could no longer live in the homeland that he loved. His account of growing up as the son of a doctor mother and farmer father, of being conscripted into defending the white government he did not believe in, and of ultimately returning as a journalist to cover the continuing violence in Zimbabwe is at times wonderfully funny, at times exciting (as great war reporting can be), and ultimately quietly heartbreaking.
Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (W.H. Freeman & Co.) is the kind of book that first warms the heart of the elitist and the skeptic, then cuts uncomfortably close to the bone, making us wonder if we too believe some weird things. Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, explains both the appeal of positions like creationism and Holocaust denial for their adherents, and the reasons why even the smartest and best-informed of those adherents are fooling themselves. He’s best when showing how pseudoscience can be difficult to unmask when it confirms our deepest prejudices, as in The Bell Curve controversy of several years ago. It’s a lesson we should all have taped to the mirror: If it feels good, don’t believe it.
What comes naturally to us isn’t natural at allit’s the result of our “situation,” our being plopped down in whatever society we find ourselves. That’s the repeated insistence of anthropology, but as long as we think that discipline is focused only on the strange practices of far-off tribes and wacky subcultures, we’re unlikely to take it to heart. Thank goodness for a book like Margaret Visser’s The Rituals of Dinner (Penguin), which effortlessly connects our eating and entertaining customs with basic human concerns that are expressed in diverse ways around the globe. Why don’t we talk with our mouths full? Because it’s rude, your parents told youand that was probably enough. But if you want to know why it’s rude in our culture, Visser has the answeralong with the answers to a bookful of other questions you never thought to ask.
Out of print and not available at the Nashville Public Library, James Agee’s only complete novel, The Morning Watch, is a pain to get hold of, but worth every penny paid to the book-search company that finds you a copy. The Easter vigil of a 12-year-old boy determined to stay awake all night in the chapel of his High Church Episcopal boarding school on Good Friday would seem to be the dated stuff that justifies a book’s sentence to the purgatory of the remainder table. In fact, this is a brilliant and truly timeless novel, by turns hilarious and painful and deeply beautiful.
Adair Lara is a longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and too often her book Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Adolescence Survived (Broadway Books) reflects the stunted style and heavy reliance on cliché of the ink-stained wretches who learned to write by hitting deadlines, taking no time for real reflection. Still, the story Lara tells herethe slow emergence from hell that her daughter’s wild career down the path of self-demolition has cast the entire family into, and the simultaneous surfacing of Lara’s own deadbeat father after decades of absenceis completely compelling and honestly told.
Talk about a dream reporting job: In 1939, Georgia newspaper columnist Susan Myrick was dispatched to Hollywood to cover the filming of Gone With the Wind. Edited with an introduction and detailed background notes by Robert Harwell, White Columns in Hollywood (Mercer Univ. Press) is a collection of Myrick’s reports from the film set. While Myrick’s chatty society column style is dated and she often expresses a kind of oblivious racism that seems shocking to us now, the wonderment of a Southern writer let loose on the set of the most famous film of its time and her evocation of a Hollywood that is indeed gone with the wind are a delight.
The juggernaut of children’s literature that is Harry Potter has had a terrific side effect, at least for me. My favorite children’s book, The Gammage Cup (Odyssey) by Carol Kendall, first published in 1959, is back in bookstores again. Like the Potter series, Kendall’s work falls into the realm of fantasy. That’s why, as one children’s bookseller told me, the book and its sequel The Whisper of Glocken were reissued in paperback last year. If your kids fell for Harry, Ron, and Hermione, they just might take to Walter the Earl, Mingy, and Muggles (a name that Kendall coined long before J.K. Rowling employed it as a term for non-magical folk).
The element of suspense to Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling horse-racing biography Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Random House) is less a measure of how little-known the animal ishe’s still one of the most famous horses in thoroughbred racing historythan an indication of the waning popularity of the sport, and the subsequent loss of devotees to pass the legends along. Hillenbrand cannily assumes that Seabiscuit’s sagafrom washed-up claiming horse at age 3 to warmly loved American hero by his retirement at age 7will be fresh news to many, so she builds tension from chapter to chapter, detailing the injuries and adverse track conditions that made the horse’s run remarkable. The result is both moving and exhilarating, even to those who’ve never bet a trifecta.
Ever wanted to know exactly where your tax dollars go? Whether it’s building an outdoor toilet for $500,000 or a $5 million golf course at Andrews Air Force Base (the third course there), our politicians have a way of spending our money that’s simply unreal. Martin Gross’ The Government Racket 2000 and Beyond (Quill) would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Every taxpayer should read this, especially those who mistakenly think that the government works.
The best of photographer Sally Mann’s several fascinating books is Immediate Family (Aperture), a 1992 collection of black-and-white photos of her son and two daughters, then about 9, 7, and 5. Many show the children nude, sometimes together. Enough critics have cried porn that Bookstar no longer carries Mann’s books.
Sally Mann has chosen to live in an archaic worldthe Blue Ridge foothills of southwestern Virginia. Her pictures are rooted there. They are mostly, she says, “of ordinary things every mother has seena wet bed, a bloody nose, candy cigarettes.” That’s true enough. But these pictures themselves are not ordinary. Transformed by Mann’s vision, a little girl with a candy cigarette becomes a 7-year-old Angelina Jolie. Like a pebble dropped into a still pond, each picture activates widening concentric circles of beauty and dread. In one called “Tobacco Spit,” a large hired man in sweaty overalls holds in his arms Mann’s 5-year-old daughter, wearing only cotton shorts. Beefy man and porcelain child pose beside an overworked pickup truck, its driver-side door much bespattered. The man is an iconic middle-aged peasant, doubtless gentle and generous, ruminating his tobacco cud while he works. But he is rooted in a culture notorious for incendiary prideful violence and incest and bestiality. The child is an elegant bewitching Circe who doesn’t know it yet, growing like a primrose in his earth.
The range of images is wide. Some are as normal as tobacco spit. Some are downright hallucinatory. All are dreadfully beautiful. Anyone who cares about children needs to ponder this book.
When A.G. McDonnell published The Autobiography of a Cad (Trafalgar Square) in 1938, he could never have anticipated the much better timing of its reprint in 2001. Today’s dot.com buccaneers and their “self-made” success stories supply the ideal context for this darkly comic spoof memoir of Edward Fox-Ingleby set at the turn of the previous century. Then it was the U.K., not the U.S., that dominated the world with a crushing superiority complex. “I am not concerned with vanity,” Fox-Ingleby explains. “It is not, and never has been, one of my weaknesses.” Thereupon the reader learns of this cad’s shameless conquests of wealth, influence, sex...and self-delusion. Never was a more sadly facetious, hilariously tragic send-up ever conceived.
In Achilles (Methuen Publishing, UK) poet, novelist, and Keats scholar Elizabeth Cook strikes an almost pre-Homeric tone for this nuanced retelling of the hero’s birth and death, rise and fall. The patina of millennia shades this delicate portrait, even while thoroughly recognizable women, men, gods, and appetites modernize every page. Cook’s particular gift is to render Achilles’ inevitable tragedy with delicious suspense and cold-eyed sympathy. An unforgettable hero is lost at the very moment he acquires his most enduring invincibility. Available only in the U.K. for now, it can be purchased via www.amazon.co.uk.
Marc K. Stengel
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