The Self-Portraits of Nine Authors

portraits

Books Acquired, 6.25.2012—Or, Here’s What’s New from Picador This Month

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A nice stack from the good folks at Picador this month, including two new entries in their ongoing Nadine Gordimer reissues. I like the design on the series:

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There’s also a reissue of Denis Johnson’s 1991 novel Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which I haven’t read, but will read soon, because Johnson is just one of those writers I’ll end up reading everything by eventually. From a 1991 NYT review of the novel:

There has never been any doubt about Denis Johnson’s ability to write a gorgeous sentence. The author of “Angels,” “Fiskadoro” and “The Stars at Noon” has become increasingly musical in his prose, and his latest novel, “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,” depends on such sentences as the primary unit of narrative motion. The novel seems, like a poem, to be written line to line. It is very much a book about one man, one sensibility.

At the outset of the novel, Leonard English, driving to the tip of Cape Cod in the off season, stops for a drink, then spins out of control, running his car onto a traffic island. He ends up taking a taxi to his destination, which is Provincetown. He has attempted suicide before the book’s beginning; now he is moving to the Cape to work for Ray Sands, a private investigator who also owns a small radio station. When we can see him most clearly, English seems very similar to the narrator of the short story — drifting, guilty, in a world of strangers, striving to connect with another person and with his God.

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Last year’s With Liberty and Justice for Some is out now in trade paperback. If you are even slightly familiar Glenn Greenwald’s columns at Salon, you’ll likely know what to expect. For those of us predisposed to agree with his analyses, With Liberty and Justice for Some is likely to inspire outrage and a certain kind of fatigue.

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Here’s an excerpt from an interview between Harper’s Scott Horton and Greenwald:

American history is suffused with violations of equality before the law. The country was steeped in such violations at its founding. But even when this principle was being violated, its supremacy was also being affirmed: resoundingly and unanimously in the case of the founders. That the rule of law—not the rule of men—would reign supreme was one of the few real points of agreement among all the founders. Arguably it was the primary one.

There’s an obvious element of hypocrisy in this fact; espousing a principle that one simultaneously breaches in action is hypocrisy’s defining attribute. But there’s also a more positive side: the country’s vigorous embrace of the principle of equality before law enshrined it as aspiration. It became the guiding precept for how “progress” was understood, for how the union would be perfected.

And the most significant episodes of progress over the next two centuries—the emancipation of slaves, the ending of Jim Crow, the enfranchisement and liberation of women, vastly improved treatment for Native Americans and gay Americans—were animated by this ideal. That happened because “blind justice”—equality before law—was orthodoxy in American political culture. The principle was sacrosanct even when it was imperfectly applied.

The Ford pardon of Nixon changed that, radically and permanently. When President Ford went on national television to explain to an angry, skeptical citizenry why the most powerful political actor would be fully immunized for the felonies he got caught committing, Ford expressly rejected the rule of law. He paid lip service to its core principle—the “law is no respecter of persons”—but then tacked on a newly concocted amendment designed to gut that principle: “but the law is a respecter of reality.”

In other words, if—in the judgment of political leaders—it’s sufficiently disruptive, divisive, or distracting to hold powerful political officials accountable under the law on equal terms with ordinary Americans, then they should be exempt and the rule of law suspended, all in the name of political harmony, of “moving on.” But of course, it willalways be divisive and distracting, by definition, to prosecute the most powerful political leaders, so Ford’s rationale, predictably, created a template for elite immunity.

The rationale for Ford’s pardon of Nixon was subsequently legitimized, and it created a precedent for shielding the most powerful elites from the consequences of their lawbreaking. The arguments Ford offered are the same ones now hauled out over and over whenever it is time to argue why the most powerful among us should not be held accountable: It’s not just for the good of the immunized criminal, but in the common good, to Look Forward, Not Backward. This direct assault on the rule of law was pioneered by the pardon of Richard Nixon.

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Steve Sem-Sandberg’s The Emperor of Lies is a Swedish novel in English Translation by Sarah Death. Look, I’m generally dismissive of Holocaust fiction because 1) the sheer number of books that come in to Biblioklept World Headquarters that use the Holocaust as a milieu and 2) the tacky and generally lazy way that such books often attempt to manipulate their audiences. Still, The Emperor of Lies seems like it’s probably a sight better than most such books, and it’s gotten generally good reviews, including this one from The Independent (UK), which apparently thinks that a book review of five sentences is fine:

Any writer – let alone one from neutral Sweden – who sets out to place another brick in the vast wall of Holocaust fiction must be deluded or inspired. Astonishing to report: Sem-Sandberg belongs in the tiny second band.

Utterly involving, morally scrupulous, written with a verve and pace that belie its dreadful setting, The Emperor of Lies – in Sarah Death’s masterly translation – really does renew the genre.

Its portrait of resistance and survival in the ghetto of Lodz between 1940 and 1944 focuses on the monstrous enigma of Chaim Rumkowski, despotic overlord of his fellow-Jews. Sem-Sandberg catches his capricious charisma. Other characters, who record their fate or fight it, also shine, while their tragic destiny moves on at mesmerising speed.

Books Acquired, 3.19.2012 — Or, Here’s What’s New From Picador

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New and newish titles from the good people at Picador. A few highlights:

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I read Peter Hoeg’s bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow over a decade ago; I recall reading it in a day or two, maybe as part of a long bus ride somewhere, and enjoying caustic Smilla’s murder investigation. It’s 20 years old now and getting the rerelease treatment. From Robert Nathan’s original 1993 review at The New York Times:

TRY this for an offer you could easily refuse. How would you like to be locked in a room for a couple of days with an irritable, depressed malcontent who also happens to be imperiously smart, bored and more than a little spoiled? Say no, and you will miss not only a splendid entertainment but also an odd and seductive meditation on the human condition. With “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” his American debut following two previous books, the Danish novelist Peter Hoeg finds his own uncommon vein in narrative territory worked by writers as varied as Martin Cruz Smith and Graham Greene — the suspense novel as exploration of the heart. Mr. Hoeg’s heroine, Smilla Jaspersen, is the daughter of an Eskimo mother who was a nomadic native of Greenland and a wealthy Danish anesthesiologist father, parentage that endows her with the resilience of the frozen north and urban civilization’s existential malaise. One day just before Christmas, Smilla arrives at her Copenhagen apartment building to find a neighbor boy, 6-year-old Isaiah Christiansen, sprawled face down in the snow, dead after a fall from the roof of a nearby warehouse.

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Love love love the covers for these pair by Nadine Gordimer—nice design work. I haven’t read Gordimer’s stuff — she’s a South African writer who won the Nobel in 1991 — so Jump and Other Stories seems like a good starting place. Here’s James Wood on Gordimer:

Gordimer’s talent is poetic and intellectual…Her best writing, sensuous, but aerated with deep intelligence, moving shrewdly between the serene claims of the poetic and the frantic compulsions of the political, makes her the lyrical analyst of an entire country

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Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a 9/11 novel. Here’s Michiko Kakutani gushing in The New York Times:

A decade after 9/11, Amy Waldman’s nervy and absorbing new novel, “The Submission,” tackles the aftermath of such a terrorist attack head-on. The result reads as if the author had embraced Tom Wolfe’s famous call for a new social realism — for fiction writers to use their reporting skills to depict “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping baroque country of ours” — and in doing so, has come up with a story that has more verisimilitude, more political resonance and way more heart than Mr. Wolfe’s own 1987 best seller, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

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A Death in the Summer is new in trade paperback. It’s another in the Quirke crime series from Benjamin Black — pen name of writer John Banville. Jacket copy:

On a sweltering summer afternoon, newspaper tycoon Richard Jewell—known to his many enemies as Diamond Dick—is discovered with his head blown off by a shotgun blast. But is it suicide or murder? For help with the investigation, Detective Inspector Hackett calls in his old friend Quirke, who has unusual access to Dublin’s elite.

Jewell’s coolly elegant French wife, Françoise, seems less than shocked by her husband’s death. But Dannie, Jewell’s high-strung sister, is devastated, and Quirke is surprised to learn that in her grief she has turned to an unexpected friend: David Sinclair, Quirke’s ambitious assistant in the pathology lab at the Hospital of the Holy Family. Further, Sinclair has been seeing Quirke’s fractious daughter Phoebe, and an unlikely romance is blossoming between the two. As a record heat wave envelops the city and the secret deals underpinning Diamond Dick’s empire begin to be revealed, Quirke and Hackett find themselves caught up in a dark web of intrigue and violence that threatens to end in disaster.

Tightly plotted and gorgeously written, A Death in Summer proves to the brilliant but sometimes reckless Quirke that in a city where old money and the right bloodlines rule, he is by no means safe from mortal danger.

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Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan demanded more of my attention than I thought it would. It’s tightly paced book, telegraphed in sharp language—but most of all, the story of John Hinckley is just too bizarre. Here’s a sample of the would

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And if that’s not weird enough for you, check out Hinckley’s fantasy life:

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