In the first half of 2008, our editors found eighteen books worthy of special attention. These are novels, memoirs, historical studies, art and photography books that are the best of the best, recipients of the much sought-after RALPH star --- to be found in our General Index.

American Creation
Triumphs and Tragedies at
The Founding of the Republic

Joseph J. Ellis
John H. Mayer

(Random House Audio)
John Adams worried constantly about how history would view him. George Washington was as good and as true as our grammar school teachers would have us believe. Thomas Jefferson was as duplicitous as they come --- mostly on the issue of slavery. He wanted to send all blacks back to Africa, or at least to "some location in the West Indies." He also ignored his oft-stated stance on the role of the chief executive as he pushed to make sure that the Louisiana Purchase would go through. His excuse, "To lose our country to scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself."

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The Art of

Jonathan Elphick
(Rizzoli International)
What appears here is devilishly beautiful. It is arranged chronologically, starting with a woodcut from 1492 by one Hortus Sanitatis --- a village scene with eight birds --- followed by a 1550 watercolor, a ferociously beautiful ruffle-tailed rooster (technically a "jungle fowl," father to all our present day chickens).

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Notes from Nethers
Growing Up in a Sixties Commune
Sandra Eugster
(Academy Chicago)
In Notes from Nethers, Ms. Eugster gives over several chapters to meetings, and for her, they were mind-numbingly boring. One is an extended discussion as to whether the commune, there on their farm in the Virginia countryside, in 1972, should buy a pig. A four or five or six hour meeting was devoted to the moral question of taking on animals which would sooner or later have to be slaughtered. Should Nethers be responsible for raising an animal "to then kill it to eat it?" Suzanne asks.

    We are all against war and capital punishment and killing. I mean we don't even kill the spiders that we find in the house, we take them outside, and then we're going to turn around and kill some poor innocent pigs?

"Everytime you eat a hamburger you're eating an innocent animal that was killed," Tim pointed out.

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The Diving Pool
Yoko Ogawa
Stephen Snyder, Translator
In the third and final story a cousin calls, needs a place to live while he is at the university in Tokyo. The narrator takes him over to her old dormitory to see if there is a vacancy. Before they arrive, she says, "There's one thing I forgot to mention ... The Manager is missing one leg and both arms."

    There was a short silence.
    "One leg and both arms," he replied at last.
    "His left leg, to be precise."

When they meet with the manager, he offers them tea. He uses his shoulder and chin, serves them perfectly. There are bees popping up here and there around the porch. There are strange tulips growing outside the window ... their colors changing every day. Students disappear: Franz Kafka meets Alfred Hitchcock, and brings along Donald Barthelme.

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E. O. Hoppé's

Modernist Photographs
From the 1920's

Phillip Prodger, Editor
The editor suggests that the pictures made in New York, Boston, Chicago, and the manufacturing centers of the middle west are composed much as "a shift supervisor might see them: a cascade of forms in chaotic rhythm, punctuated by the steel beams of the vertical." The majority of the 150 photographs in this volume are what you might label as "Industrial Bleak." But as Marshall McLuhan would have it, the products of yesterday's factories --- indeed, the very factories themselves --- will become tomorrow's antique icons. So it is with shots of conveyer belts in Detroit, the industrial slums of Alexandria, the Woolworth Building in New York City, the new, uniform suburbs of 1920s west coast America.
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Amy Bloom
Barbara Rosenblatt,

(HighBridge Audio)
It is this seeing (and being seen) that endears us to the author; that, and her ability to take Lillian to the brink of death, lets her survive a dozen times, in Russia, across America, in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women in British Columbia, culminating in a ridiculous trek across Alaska on her way to the Bering Straits.

Lillian, marching through the snow, alone, cold, with blisters, "and these blisters take as much of her attention as the wild animals, the staggering physical beauty ... For the rest of her life when she closes her eyes, she finds only three images of all the thousand she intended to keep: a line of low purple flowers, sparse and underfed, sprinkled among the fallen trees; green light rippling noisily across the night sky; a pink coral-streaked dawn near Tagish."

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Living Everyday Zen
Charlotte Joko Beck
(Sounds True)
She cites the priest Anthony Demillo, who said that we should view all people as mean, vicious, untrustworthy and manipulative. "And innocent. And blameless."

Zen is a "returning to silence." It is the practice of dying to the self. When you seek something, seek it over years, and finally get it (a new car, a house, a million dollars) the question should be, "And then what?"

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On Empire
America, War, and
Global Supremacy

Eric Hobsbawm
You remember what they said about Old Marxists? They were the bearded guys who lived in a shabby backroom with a shabby cat, two shabby fellow Marxists --- with whom they fought constantly --- and a broken-down Ditto machine.

Hobsbawn is an Old Marxist, perhaps the oldest for all we know, but unlike those scorned, hectored figures of my youth, he is famous, well-respected, much beloved, prosperous (we hope), and a great stylist. He may have honed his writing skills on the Ditto machines of the forties, but what he has to say, and how he chooses to say it, can make a grown man weep.

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Pioneers of
Balinese Painting

The Rudolf Bonnet Collection
Helena Spanjaard
(KIT Publishers)
The painting above is by I Gusti Nyoman Lempas who claimed to be 116 years old when he died. From the drawings and paintings shown here, I would guess he was inspired by the gods who may have rewarded him for his sense of scale and drama by letting him live on far beyond his allotted time. You may also enjoy I Dewa Kompian Pasek whose illustration of "Drinking Rice Wine" from 1958 has all the overtones of an orgy with a hint of the sly bureaucrat Henri Rousseau (a customs-house clerk, if I am not mistaken).
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Night Haunts
A Journey
Through the London Night

Sukhdev Sandhu
Sandhu can churn our bowels with the sights and smells and sounds encountered in the sewers, on the Thames, or even in a nocturnal sleep clinic: "sometimes the patients flailing and shaking and screaming so hard. You think: their vocal chords can't take it. It's like the devil is in the child."

It's a brief volume, scarcely eleven stories long. Yet the writer is so good with the words that fine ideas, phrases, and truths manage to drift through the pages, stay with one.

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Natural Shocks
<Richard Stern
Northwestern University)
With Stern, you'll learn about NATO officials who quote Philip Larkin, the thousands of toilet bowls that littered the blast site at Nagasaki, glittering in the sun, and the teenager, your teenager, who listens to rock: "He wasn't listening to the music but his inner racket."

And this on hearing Beethoven's Opus 135, the last quartet, the one in F-major. Wursup heard it one evening, alone on the coast of Maine: "Notes the dropsical, bilious deaf man had inked a century and a half ago on score paper were stroked on catgut by four men, agitated the air, made electric pulsings, scratches on oiled platters. And how many other losings and findings till the contents of that ear-blocked, in-turned head in Austria became the inside of another one on this land dribble of the American coast."

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Whatever You Do,
Don't Run

True Tales of a
Botswana Safari Guide

Peter Allison
(The Lyons Press)
Even those of us who don't care for hyenas and ground hornbills, Whatever You Do is a fascinating ramble, loaded with facts. A reserve is not a zoo, so "we did not feed them, stroke them, or stand next to them for photographs. All we did is watch them live and die."

And do other things. Like try to steal meals off the tables and out of the trash-cans at the camp. Or show their asses: zebras (we learn) are notorious rump flashers.

Or piss. We get to see a giraffe pissing, and "the stream came thick and gooey."

    I explained to the group that giraffes are at their most vulnerable to lions when they lean down to drink, so they do everything they can to conserve water --- including a biological process that leaves their piss thick and honeylike.

We learn not to pick up snakes, especially pythons. They have "curved and jagged daggers of teeth." When they crap, and they do if you touch them, "the stink was overwhelming. There is something about a six-month digestive process that really gets a pong going." Their preferred method of getting rid of you is to strangle you. I won't tell you how Allison finally got untangled from a ten-footer that he was silly enough to pick up.

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A Memoir
Shalom Auslander
(Riverhead Books)
Foreskin's Lament brings together all the elements we could ever want in a novel. J. D. Salinger on growing up, Philip Roth on living in the real world, and S. J. Perelman on staying sane (or nuts). The major difference is Auslander's divine, who is always on the make, under the table, in the picture --- always sucking you in (and then screwing you).

God hovers over all. He is a madman who bedevils you constantly to drive you to despair. Or worse, a monster who forces you to go bonkers and foul everything up. Irrevocably.

I finished Foreskin's Lament in a day. I wished it was twice as long. It certainly couldn't have been any funnier.

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A View of
The Ocean

Jon de Hartog
I try to think back on the literature of dying, once so rare, now so common: those books of pain that now flood the marketplace, purporting to tell the truth of dying, lingering death, the exquisitely awful deaths of children, mothers, fathers, grand parents.

I've labored through many of these (Is this what my own dying is going to be like? Is there anything I can do to prevent such a going?) and I have yet to run across one that has touched me as much as A View of the Ocean.

For it is not only a story of the agony of watching a life --- a good life --- leak away, but the a tale of a body trying to abolish itself, a body caught up in the ultimate war. "Anyone who doubts that there is a power of evil afoot in this universe need only be present at the lingering death of a patient afflicted with my mother's disease, if treated the way she was treated."
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Sister Bernadette's
Barking Dog

The Quirky History
And Lost Art of
Diagramming Sentences

Kitty Burns Florey
What sets Ms. Florey's book off against any other I have read about diagramming is that (1) I can understand it; (2) Even if I still don't get diagramming any more than with my grammar-school teacher, I can still enjoy it, because (3) Ms. Florey is willing to put the litmus test to anyone, including Hemingway, John Updike, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Henry James' ("The Jolly Corner" --- takes two full pages) ... and Proust in what is said to be the longest of his sentences, a 958-word stinker from Sodome et Gomorrhe, which can take up the entire wall in your kitchen or hall.

She would lead us to believe that this is a book about diagramming, but like any good and worthy opus, it has dozens of sub-texts: the beauties of English, the author's passion for English, the writing of good English. She also has a marvelous take on authors as disparate as Fenimore Cooper, Eudora Welty, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

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Roberto Bolaño
Chris Andrews

(New Directions)
This Bolaño is good, as good as they reported in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker when they finally discovered him. He rambles, and dithers, and won't shut up, just like his story-teller Auxilio, and you don't want him or the story or her to end.

He takes an impossible, unlikely loony who can discourse on Greek mythology and at the same time have her repeat (seven times) "I am in the women's bathroom in the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature and I am the last person left." Then, "I was heading for the operating room. I was heading for the birth of History. And since I'm not a complete idiot, I also thought: It's over now, the riot police have left the university, the students have died at Tlatelolco, the university has opened again, but I'm still shut up in the fourth floor bathroom, as if after all my scratching at the moonlit tiles a door had opened, but not the portal of sadness in the continuum of Time."

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Her Father's House and
Other Stories of Sicily

Maria Messina
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
America is one of the main characters in Behind Closed Doors. It's that beast across the ocean that steals husbands from their wives, boys from their mothers, fathers from their children. La Mèrica whispers stories of work and riches, so a man goes off without thinking. If he comes back, he's aged and drawn, sickened by working in a place that could break anyone. If he stays, he finds another woman, leaves wife and children to fend for themselves.

In Grandmother Lidda's case, after a few years, a thick letter arrives. Since she cannot read, she takes it, as usual, to the cook Nitto. "Suddenly, she leaned against the wall, because it seemed the house was spinning around her. And since the cook had finished, she begged him again with a weak voice: 'Read it again, mastro Nitto, there must be a mistake ... Nitto slowly shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, and said, "He's his son. There's nothing you can do.'" The boy must be sent off to La Mèrica.

In the package she makes up to go with the child, she places the dress of Our Lady of Grace, "for they said that over there people were without religion." Last of all

    she added a Christmas whistle so that the child would remember his grandmother so far away. Poor child, who could tell if they would take care of him the way she had.

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Poems of Brooklyn
Julia Spicher Kasdorf
Michael Tyrell

(New York University Press)
The editors didn't put much Walt Whitman in this anthology thank god: they included but two of his less mawkish shorter odes, "Sun-down Poem" and "The Wallabout Martyrs."

The most interesting verse here comes from later writers who chose to settle in the moil of Prospect Park, Grand Street, Brighton Beach, Borough Park, Williamsburg, Flatbush ... content with the wonders of the Botanic Garden, the Hyacinth Garden, Coney Island, and glory be, with Enid Dame riding the D-Train,

    Everything is important:
    that thin girl, for instance,
    in flowered dress, golden high heels.
    How did her eyes get scarred?
    Why is that old man crying?
    Why does that woman carry
    a cat in her pocketbook?

Be careful, she warns, "Don't underestimate / any of it." Like Brooklyn itself, "Anything you don't see / will come back to haunt you."

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