PicksBeing a list of twenty books that we have received over the last few months that stand out as being especially interesting, funny or wise.
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< The First World War
Gerard J. De Groot
(Palgrave)In this 200 page description the events before, during, and after WWI, historian De Groot has chosen to avoid the stylistic twitches of the drones like Martin Gilbert (who go plodding, month-by-month, through the battles, until the reader wants to scream and pull out his hair). De Groot's is a sensible and well-paced overview of the war, peppered with some wonderfully sly comments on those who were in charge of the butchery.
< The Same Sea
Nicholas de Lange
(Harcourt)He's all you could want in a novelist: funny, heartbreaking, outrageous. He can sew together a plot that will knock your socks off. He knows hearts, old and young. He shares the good and the bad of love --- old love, new love --- and loves to tell. Most of all, he, or rather he and his translator, are dynamite with words.
Photographs by David Finn
(Harry N. Abrams)
Many of the almost two hundred figures represented here are so exquisitely sensuous that one feels one might be in the presence of the "perfect" human form. The Greek Classical sculptures from 2500 years ago --- works of Renaissance artists such as Baccio Bandinelli, Giambologna, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini --- are so inviting that we feel a bit silly, wondering that icy marble could convey so much lust. And the 19th Century artists Antonio Canova and Giovanni Dupré turn breast and buttock and thigh --- even the marble drapes scantily covering these parts of the body --- into something that wouldn't be out of place in the pages of "Playboy" or "Christopher Street."
< Of Beetles
A True Story of
The American Dream
(Megadee)We reviewers prize our toughness when reading books that may try to shove us over into naked sentiment. With this one, however, I had to surrender. The eighteen-year-old Asgedom, a poorer-than-poor refugee from Ethiopia, finds himself accepted: I got home and found two envelopes waiting for me, one from Harvard and the other from Yale. I opened them and read their contents. Then I walked over to the living room to tell my parents. Their dream had come true. Their boy had earned admission to the best universities in the country. His parents wept. He wept. And, dear reader, alas --- so did this reviewer.
< The Autobiography
Of Abbie Hoffman
(Four Walls/Eight Windows)It's useless for us or anyone else to try to "review" Abbie Hoffman's autobiography. He is an eloquent spokesman for himself, and what he has to tell us is pure Abbie. He was a merry idealist who was appalled at a governmental system that was (and, apparently, still is) willing to validate cruelty, war, and injustice as patriotism. As a reward for his funny, righteous caring about his country, he was spied on, cornered, beaten, jailed (three times in one day was his record) and finally set up with a drug charge which, had he not fled, may have consigned him to jail for the rest of his days.
< Our Man
Richard Timothy Conroy
(St. Martins)We were fully prepared to dislike Conroy and his book, but he is such a merry wordsmith that by page fifty we were prepared to drop everything and head out to Washington to visit the Smithsonian Institution where he hangs out now and thank him for jollying up our weekend. Obviously, he is a man who has found as much to dislike about the State Department and the Foreign Service as the rest of us, but he wisely takes the edge off of his feelings by writing in a sardonic style that can best be compared to the late Raymond Chandler. Or maybe one of those English teachers we had in college who viewed the world with a deep interest tempered by a profound sense of the folly of it all.
< Under the Skin
(Harcourt)This one will get under your skin and, at the same time, probably make you give up hitchhiking forever. At least in Northern Scotland. It's a jim-dandy seat-grabber (or seat-stabber) of a book, and part of the pleasure is getting into the heads of those who are, after all, running nothing more than an exotic meat-packing plant stocked with humans for transshipment --- fattened and frozen --- to their far-off world. Specialty meats, it's called.
(Arcade Publishing)Soros comes out of this as a beguiling trickster, a combination of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. He's the kind of person that we would want to hang out with just because he has that wry irony and let-nothing-daunt-me attitude that we'd need if we were Jews trying to survive in Budapest in 1944. There is a powerful implied kindness in all his works. He doesn't say, "I'm a kind person." He doesn't have to. Despite his living in the midst of such human bestiality, he remains a steadfast humanitarian. He comes off as one who is simply not built to give up, much less see the world in terms of enemies and friends.
(Arizona)Rathje started the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona in 1972. He was a trained anthropologist and reasoned that since we have been able to draw exact portraits of ancient cultures by examining what they discard, we could do the same with our own by carefully and scientifically excavating our dumps. Utilizing classic archeological techniques, Rathje & Co. come up with some wondrous facts...and they are wonderful, literate writers, with a great sense of fun. The book, now thankfully reissued by the University of Arizona Press, is not only packed with disgusting and delightful tid-bits, but, as well, unlikely quotes, ranging from "Joe Bananas" Bonanno, the "National Enquirer," and various garbage workers, to Wallace Stegner, Charles Reich, and Thomas Jefferson.
< Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men
Photographs by Walker Evans
(Houghton Mifflin/Mariner)If you have never read Agee you might consider the possibility of dropping this review and calling up the American Book Exchange or Powells to get a copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men so that you don't have to waste your time in having us tell you what a fine piece of work it is. It's the work of a young man (twenty-seven) who knows words and knows how to use them and wants us to see and hear and smell and feel what it is like to be intimately involved with three families who are certainly not famous but certainly are poor --- "dirt poor" as we used to say. He is obviously trying to do with words what companion Walker Evans did with the sixty-four pages of photographs that appear in this volume.
< The Art of the
(Princeton)Ms. Prettejohn with her Pre-Raphaelite name is a worthy guide to the Pre-Raphaelites, addressing the questions of history and technique and impact. The renascence of our interest in that school of art came out of the Tate exhibit of 1984, which, she says, was perhaps the most comprehensive that was and will be. There are here line drawings, close-ups, and 170 color reproductions, 300 fine pages in all.
(Chicago)MacCreagh's style grows on you. At first, it seems a bit juvenile --- but by some magic, he steals our hearts, involves us with him, through the rapids, or while being eaten by piume flies, or negotiating with the various characters that infest this virgin world of eighty years ago. All along, he is wonderfully droll and (one realizes) exceptionally courageous. When stranded near the headhunters of the Tiquié, he contrives to convince the Indians that he is different than the thousands of other whites who merely saw them as savages to be robbed --- and it works. There are few travel/adventure books which excite and please as much as this one.
< History: A Novel
(Steerforth Italia)Morante has the ability to capture her characters so completely that it puts us in mind of a fine movie, and there is an especial childlike beauty in this one: it's a world of children that has become touched by, at times poisoned by, at times elevated by, the adult world. It reminds us of the enchanted world of early Borges --- but this is two decades before Borges. Morante magically transports back to 1942 or 1944 Italy to participate in the wonders and horrors of four people merely trying to survive in a world of no shelter, little food, and constant state sanctioned murder. It's cosmic writing --- a writing that lets the reader come into the day-to-day of people that we would never otherwise have a chance to meet. This is the story of Moravia's forgotten peasants, written by one who was his lifelong companion.
< The Last Cheater's Waltz
Beauty and Violence in
The Desert Southwest
(Arizona)She takes a naturalist's world view, mixes it with geology, history, psychology, humanity --- and blends a lyric whole that is sweet, sharp, and sometimes very poignant. The desert is where she lives. It's where she travels. It's where she wonders about, for example, the United States creating and testing and developing the most secret awful weapons in her back yard. It's a profound and wondering (and sometimes very funny) account of one person in her element, the Southwest Desert, which turns out to be not only the hiding place for the sins of America's warlike character, but, too, a graveyard for those who have died wasting away for lack of the most basic stuffs of life --- food, shelter, water.
< The Barn at the
End of the World
The Apprenticeship of a
Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd
Mary Rose O'Reilley
(Milkweed)The freshness of her writing cuts through these pages, offering honesty, curiosity, and that American craving for answers. Intermixed with it are very human bouts of American fret-work, anger, and guilt: the what-am-
I-doing- with-my- life? syndrome --- along with what-does- it-all- mean? and what-in- God's-name- am-I- doing-here? We are invited inside her soul, to become part of her family, feel her woe at loss of children (they grow up, they go away), experience her continuing affection for her early Catholic training, marvel at her attempt to follow the Buddhist precept of sacrifice and caring for all sentient creatures. She writes with a style that is a reviewer's dream --- essays that are as light as angel-food, that are at once profound, funny, lively and insightful.
< My War Gone by,
I Miss It So
(Penguin)It's one of those books that comes out of the blue to blow one away. He tells of atrocities and being strung out on drugs and what to do (or not do) when The Big Fear of Dying first hits you in the middle of battle. Then there are the irritating UN spokesmen and soldiers with their own strange good-luck charms and touchstones and, most of all, what happens to the soul of any reasonably civilized person who comes across what he shouldn't have to come across in Bosnia. Loyd is a reporter's reporter, the one we want to tell us what is truly transpiring, not what the government back-pocket media wants us to think is happening.
< Without Vodka:
Adventures in Wartime Russia
(Steerforth)We can't think of another prison book that puts the reader right in the middle a pest-hole --- with the stink of the latrine, the lice (three kinds: head, body, groin), the cold, the bodies pressed together, the watery soup, the 600 grams (or less) of bread, the occasional treat when one is able to bribe a trusty to bring in something special. As in life, as in prison, there must be diversions. Here they come from the details --- some funny, some weird, some scary, some wildly imaginative: How to construct chessmen from chewed pieces of bread, how to give a tattoo to a fellow prisoner with India ink pens, how to hoard food, how to hide things from the guards, how to divert the prisoners who want to beat up on you, how to light a cigarette with no matches.
< The Naked and the Dead
(Picador USA)We picked it up to revive old memories of a book we had once read and could never forget. We were not convinced we wanted to labor through all 721 pages of it but...alas, it caught us. Mailer's vision of men and their lives and their wars is uniformly bleak. It's not just that these soldiers are lonely agonized characters. They fight each other as vigorously as they fight the Japanese. The worlds they came from are as grim and hopeless as the world of the battlefield. From the grunt soldiers to the officers, they create such a tension such that one half expects them to explode in flames.
< Sex, Drugs &
The Twinkie Murders
(Loompanics)Krassner is first and foremost a journalist and a reporter. His writing is clear and direct, and he marshals facts to make his point, no matter how bizarre. He trained himself to write in a snappy fashion, and he does his homework. We could thus say that he represents the New York Times of the acid set.
< War & Politics by
A Journalist's Memoir
(University of Washington)Scates is a reporter of the old school. He is honest and he is driven --- and he is, too, more than a little courageous. During the Six-Day War, he and Bill Maudlin drove themselves --- in a rented car, no less --- to where they thought the next action would be taking place. They were usually right: this meant they got there before the bombings started, which meant they were right in the middle, had to duck when it actually happened. He is not only profane and gutsy --- he's a fine writer.