Top Picks from
2012In the General Index,
RALPH's editors award
stars to new books
we find to be of especial merit.
Here are twelve culled from
the more than one hundred reviews
that we posted this year.The Patagonian Hare
Frank Wynne, Translator
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Whether he is writing about smuggling guns in 1940s Nazi-occupied France, almost drowning in the surf off Alexandria, making love to this or that princess, eating (and sleeping with) de Beauvoir while Sartre writes next door, getting lost in the massifs of Switzerland, having the Communists take out a contract on him ...
... in all of this there comes a breathtaking feeling of we-are-there and he-may-not-get-out-of-it alive. And the undercurrent, the Lanzmann-set: what I am doing right now is the most important thing in the world; if I don't do it now, and if I don't it right, all will be lost. No small potatoes here. Every one of Lanzmann's adventures has the feel of ultimate import.
There is a danger in this for all concerned. David Bromwich writing in a recent issue of the LRB speaks of Obama's similar sense of personal (and world) drama:
It is dangerous for a person ... to regard every action as significant. It means that you consider yourself an embodiment of a symbolic purpose which floats free of the content of actions; a purpose that requires any disturbing break to be viewed in the light of an as yet undisclosed terminus.Breasts
A Natural and
(Norton)In the United States, 700 new chemicals come on the market each year, in addition to the 82,000 already being produced. "Only a few hundred have ever been tested for health effects, and only five have been banned."
Of the 650 top-volume chemicals in use, four billion pounds get released into the American air and water each year. Forty-two billion pounds are made here or imported each day, for use in products and materials. [Emphasis hers.]
And why does this horror story --- so familiar to many of us --- appear in a book on breasts? Because the mammary gland "is the most sensitive organ" when it comes to being blindsided by chemicals. It stores in its tissues "known culprits such as BPA, DDT, and a common weedkiller called atrazine." And so many more work their way into the tissues, from all sorts of unexpected sources: fake leather, the insides of tin cans, sunglasses, plastic wraps, rubber gloves, soaps, deodorants, toys, shower curtains, soap, sun screen, vinyl, car seats, and especially new furniture.Hard Times
Anton Lesser, Reader
Hard Times has the distinction of being Dicken's shortest novel, a quarter of the size of most of the others. In my time with it --- and I stayed on with all nine disks, even listened a second time to some of the key chapters --- I was swept away by the characters: honest but poor worker Stephen Blackpool hounded to death; Thomas Gradgrind finding that his insistence on "facts" for his children is not quite enough to sustain them; cool Louisa cornered by a lusting James Harthouse on the country path ... to the point that she can be cool and logical no longer. The vile Harthouse is soon faced down by sweet Sissy, reaching him, as the author craftily reports, so that
He was touched in the cavity where his heart should have been --- in that nest of addled eggs, where the birds of heaven would have lived if they had not been whistled away --- by the fervour of this reproach.
When Dickens wrote this, in 1854, books were rare and expensive, out of the reach of most. The trick in those pre-radio, pre-TV days was to gather the family around your knees of an evening, in front of the fire, and read aloud to them from the writer's magazine, Household Words. Hard Times appeared in several episodes, always stoking you up and leaving you hanging so you'd buy the next issue of the magazine.
Thus, in this Naxos version, we are listening --- as a Victorian family would --- to a tale of the great moil of characters enmeshed in lust and greed and blind certainty and despair and pitiless judgment. And the drama comes very clear in this reading, so much so that I was reluctant to give it up, found myself cheering on the girls, booing the men, awe-stricken by the author's fine way with a plot.
A Visual History from
The Renaissance to
The Digital Age
Benjamin A. Rifkin
Michael J. Ackerman
(Abrams)This is no ordinary medical or "art" book. It is a history of the illustrations of "deep" --- and sometimes not-so-deep --- dissections. It contains upwards of three hundred pictures --- mostly woodcuts and engravings --- that were published from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 21st.
The design of the book is delicious, if one can use that word with so many illustrations of the "Children of Saturn." The prose is intelligent, wise and penetrating. Likewise, most of the drawings and engravings are clear and rich with detail, often showing a strange sense of modesty. There are twenty-eight important artists featured --- mostly names we have not encountered before: Charles Estienne, Juan Valverdi de Amusco, Bartolommeo Eustachi (you have two of his tubes inserted in your head to protect your ear-drums), William Cheselden (a bone man), William Hunter ... and the improbably named William Smellie. This last created some powerful engravings of fetuses in and sometimes almost out of the uterus --- some of the most disturbing images in the book.
Other interesting monikers include William Skelton who didn't do skeletons but, instead, some fairly ghastly diseased livers, hearts in myocardia, and gangrene; Govard Bidloo, who specialized in neat thoracic cavities, weird fetal skeletons, and shaved heads --- shaved of their outer skin, that is --- including two vile eyes-closed mouth-wide, tongue-extended gack craniums; and Jean-Baptiste Marc Bourgery, whose neck-thorax dissections in vivid color will blow your mind if they don't make you swear off cadaver books for the rest of your days.My CIA
(Telling Our Stories Press
#246 --- 185 AJK Blvd.
Lewisburg PA 17837)Here, "CIA" turns into a variation on one of those ancient Greek Curses, the ones that nagged Elektra and Oedipus and the whole Atreus clan. The gift that keeps on giving,
So amidst all the tales --- most of them quite gentle and funny --- of raising two girls and taking them to school and going to the store and cleaning up the house and going to bed at night and trying to be a good wife and good mother, there is this current, this "something's just not quite right," something a little malefic in her family ... which may explain mother's absent-minded responses to questions about their time in Miami and Nepal and Liberia and Katmandu. Might even explain the panic attacks.
§ § §
McCord is so convinced of this taint in their lives that she has sent several letters to --- even called --- the CIA to determine when and how and where her father was with them. As you can imagine, her communications with them are a bit one-sided, their responses a bit sparse. But this connection pervades her life. Her youngest daughter hates school, so they talk about "her hardships with friends and crabby teachers and injustices, bullies and drudgery and antiquated teaching practices:"
We're all undercover, I say. You're the granddaughter of a covert man. A spy. You are special in that way. Act, I say, like it's normal. Act, I say, like it all makes sense. Act, I say, like your biggest goal in life is to get an A.
A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen
She speaks the language (ours too). She's willing to have her hands painted with henna (a local custom). She can gossip with all, can turn a simple encounter with one of the locals into a funny tale of dealing with customs, outlined with a crucial delicacy.
Once, Fatima came to visit, and she chances on an old issue of Vogue. Stark had not "had the time to tear out two naked ladies advertising bath salts:"
I hastened to say that it is a paper exclusively circulated in harems.
"Are they real?" said she.
"Oh no," I said with relative truth: they have the improbable silhouette invented by advertisers. "They are just Jinn."
"Fatima was overcome by the female beauty of Europe," Stark concludes. "She kissed her forefinger and pressed it on the prettiest of the mannequins and said, "May Allah shower good on them."
It is her ability to sketch out the situation for us, along with her affection and sensitivity to this distant culture --- so far from the Europe in which she grew up --- that makes her such an affecting companion on this new journey of hers.Children in Reindeer Woods
Lytton Smith, Translator
(Open Letter)If you think that Rafael let the eleven-year-old Billie survive the mass killing because he has some devious plans for her then you don't know Kristín Ómarsdóttir. I didn't either.
Now I do, and am not so sure I want to. For this is one of the whackiest books I have come across in many years of whacky books. A soldier more or less immune to murder (although he does shoot off a few of his toes to try to break himself of the habit of murdering people.) A girl who seems unimpressed by his murderous history; in fact, seems to find him a quite pleasant companion (he will often play Barbie dolls with her).
He only turns a little menacing when she starts ragging on him about the nun who appeared one day, then disappeared:
Did she ask you about me?...
She asked whether I was your brother.
And what did you say?
Yes, that I was your brother. Then she asked me countless questions which I couldn't answer without giving myself away.
Why didn't you tell her the truth?
Then I would have had to kill her. You don't kill nuns. I could never justify that before a court of law, let alone myself.
Why don't you try to tell the truth to those around you and then not kill people?
If you meet her again?
Then I'll tell her the truth.
Why didn't you rape her?
Don't behave like that, child.War and Ideas
(Routledge)Mueller is a contrarian's dream. And his statements might peg him as a madman if it weren't for his singular weakness as a historian: he backs up his facts with exquisitely detailed citations. Think the world is getting more warlike? He defines wars as conflicts within or between nation states as (an arbitrary figure) causing more than 1,000 deaths. He has a chart that shows thirty "intra-state wars" in 1991, then less than ten in 2006. Extra-state wars reached a high of ten in 1971, have tapered off since. The same with inter-state wars.
"No matter how defined," he avers, "there has been a most notable decline in the frequency of wars over the last years." Maybe it's a matter of definition, such as, "ethnic conflict," "new war," or perhaps "drug violence."
Most ... have been nearly opportunistic predations waged by packs --- often remarkably small ones --- of criminals, bandits, and thugs engaging in armed conflict either as mercenaries under hire to desperate governments as independent or semi-independent warlord or brigand bands.
One of Mueller's most salient points is the necessary ability of nation-states to institute firm police and military forces to keep in hand the "thugs, brigands, bandits, highwaymen, goons, bullies, criminals, pirates, mercenaries, robbers, adventurers, hooligans, and children who seem to be the chief remaining perpetrators of a type of violence that can be said to resemble war."Cain
Margaret Jull Costa,
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)Some of us had to grow up on this bible, some of us even had it dinned in our heads endlessly, regularly, twice on Sundays, ad nauseum. And still it never registered, the cold stone they had given us for the rock of our faith.
It is I suppose like what happens to us who grow up in a house of alcoholics: it becomes part of the background noise, you don't question it, once you get out the door you ... well, you don't forget it, but it is back there behind your life and you don't think it's so special or different until there comes a moment when you find another body on the floor amidst the broken glass and the shambles, a body supposedly related to you, and you think, "Other people don't live like this (the bottles under the cushions, tucked away at the back of the closet; that stink of booze everywhere; mum passed out again in the bathroom.)
§ § §
From our past readings, we know this Saramago can take any story from anywhere and pop it full of life. Eight years ago, we wrote in our review of The Cave,
Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...
... plus, and in addition, any other prizes lying around, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.Silence
50th Anniversary Edition
Kyle Gann, Editor
Silence is infinitely quotable, mostly because of the koans. All are a bit floaty, so Cage sticks in names and places and details that leave one befuddled, but you have all the facts you need to befuddle you somewhat less. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains."
After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What's the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."
There's a lot of music stuff going here which doesn't interest me very much, because when I am listening, for example, to a good performance of a Bach cantata, or to Schubert's Winterreise, words of explanation are furtherest from my mind.
It's not that they have no place, or that criticism isn't important ... but it becomes as attention-grabbing as the baby crying during Stockhausen's Pierrot Lunaire or an errant fire alarm in the bedroom. It depends on the person involved.
Cage doesn't seem to have much use for the Romantics, but in his Lecture on Nothing, he does relate that "Somebody asked Debussy how he wrote music, and the composer said: I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don't want, and use all the others."Orientation
And Other Stories
(Faber & Faber)If we had to characterize Orozco, we might term him as a writer who can successfully romanticize the common bureaucrat. Those people who give us tickets and take our number in the building department and administer our driving test and draw our blood and take our oath in the courtroom and answer the telephone at Human Services are human: they have loves, nightmares, spates of loneliness, impossible parents or children, fear of dying.
We may be blinded by their uniforms or their uniform voices or their uniform jobs but they are not: they are part of the circle of the human race, and here in these seventeen stories they join us in the appallingly weird comedy and folly that we know of as living.