Friday, October 30, 2015


Greetings! I’m the Books Editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. As part of my job, I get to unpack and stack hundreds of books a week on shelves. Not only does this invest enormous, foolishly placed power in me, but also it gives me an advance look at what’s coming up. After each session of ripping and sorting and stacking, I always have a lot of things I want to tell people – and nobody to tell. So this humble blog is a way to tell people. If you like to read, and if you’re always wondering what’s good, and what’s coming up, maybe you’ll find some good recommendations here. And, of course, I would love to hear your recommendations for books, new or old.

Hey – have you been following the fascinating conversation between Marilynne Robinson and that famous bibliophile, President Barack Obama? The New York Review of Books is serializing it. Here are parts one and two. You can also listen to it via podcast here.
Robinson, by the way, also has written this intriguing and challenging essay on guns, violence and fear. It is mandatory reading.
And Mother Jones wuvvs huh.

And have you been following our Philadelphia Inquirer Q&A's with bigtime writers? No? Get with it, please! Here are chats with Ta-Nehisi CoatesJoyce Carol Oates Margaret Atwood, Carrie Brownstein, Ruth Reichl, and Ayad Akhtar. The great Dawn Fallik spoke with Atwood and Reichl, and the great Hillary Rea chatted with Brownstein.

And while we're at it, here's the Philadelphia Inquirer's Books Page.

Two Nice Essays. In this blog, I have mentioned two books the entire world seems to be talking about at the moment, each widely different, both spectacular: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau; 176 pages,  $24.99), and The Story of the Lost Child, by that mysterious world-beater, Elena Ferrante (Europa: 480 pages. $18). Read ’em, OK? A recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Jedediah Purdy, titled “Maybe Connect,” actually brings the two together and argues that they embody the stresses and tenor of the present moment. Purdy oversells his argument, and his editor sure gave him a long leash and wide open spaces to run, but he also is brilliant and on-point about the strengths of these two peculiar works, both of which, in his view, refuse to be what we want them to be, and therefore embody the resistant sense of our burdened present. Gotta read it.
And, à propos of absolutely not what we were discussing, here is a really fine essay by the great Dennis Overbye about the Cassini satellite’s recent voom right through the vapor-plume of Saturn’s astonishing moon, Enceladus, looking for signs of life elsewhere in the solar system. I love this line: “These are optimistic, almost sci-fi times.”

Essays and Podcasts: Readers, go listen to the Esquire Classic Podcast. It features discussions of some of the standout essays from Esquire’s deep vaults. Start with Episode 1, in which author Tom Junod and host David Brancaccio discuss Junod’s 2003 essay “The Falling Man,” claimed to be “the most-read magazine story of all time.” And then move sprightly into Nora Ephron’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and influential 1972 article “A Few Words About Breasts,” discussed by Amy Schumer writer Jessi Klein (who is pretty hilarious herself).

And who knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic essay "The Crack-Up" first appeared in Esquire? Wow.
Hear the podcasts, then go back and read the essays.
Great Titles. Some great titles have passed before my eyes recently. I admire the movie Our Brand Is Crisis for its title alone (I haven’t seen it yet) – the very concept applies to every political operation I’ve ever seen. As for books, we have Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It, by Daniel Klein (Penguin: 211 pages, $20). True, some titles, such as Hitler at Home [details withheld] inspire somewhat less.
But, speaking of great titles, I crazily recommend The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts (Heron: $24.99). This scientific polyglot has creds in biology, physiology, archaeology, and anthropology, and here she tells the chemical, physical, and ultimately molecular and genetic tale of how life came to be. It’s incredibly unlikely, and her fine writing sets aglow that beautiful and awe-striking fact. This is yet another book in a comparatively recent burst of excellent science writing by females.

And here’s to Lisa Randall, a physicist who is as splendid a writer as she is a scientist. Samuel Johnson once said of the poet and crazyperson Christopher Smart, to paraphrase, that “I’d just as soon pray with Kit Smart as with anyone else,” and I’d just as soon read Lisa Randall’s lovely take on our physical universe, as in her book Knocking on Heaven’s Door, and her new one, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs [another great title!], more than anyone else’s. And more. Scientific writing for the masses has finally, finally arrived, I think when I read her work.
Also great is The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (Simon & Schuster: 384 pages, $30), by James Shapiro of Columbia University. It’s yet another example of how academic authors can be wonderful general-audience writers, how they can make their interests and research come alive for a much wider audience than for their specialized academic work. Back not that long ago, many academic departments frowned on general-audience writing, and only the most securely tenured dared venture it. But once Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World (Norton: 448 pages, $16.95) became a best-seller in 2010, a sea change came over both U.S. academic writing and the way universities and many university departments saw it. Academic publishing houses went nuts, and now all are vying for the next unlikely hit. Several academic departments, many of which considered nonacademic publishing a strike against you, now have categories called “public intellectual activity” or something, so that your general-audience work can get you brownie points. The whole thing always was completely stupid, and I am glad Greenblatt blew a hole in it.

As for Shapiro, go back and read his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster: 352 pages), in which he (a) gives us a beautiful look at Shakespeare’s line of work, how he wrote, where he wrote, with whom, and for whom; and (b) gives us a thorough, thoroughly shocking history of the “no-Shakespeare” movement. It was a relief to read Contested Will [another great title], because the no-Shakespeare stuff is total bunk and everyone should be ashamed of themselves. After reading this book it is impossible to take no-Willers seriously – I never did, but Shapiro, gently, respectfully, and firmly, destroys all of it to death in the face on the freeway without mercy. In The Year of Lear, he focuses on 1606, what was happening in Shakespeare’s life, in the life of London and of Britain, in history, society, literature, and thought, and applies this to perhaps (some folks think) the single greatest literary work. And another one that stands with it, Macbeth! Not a bad year in the life.
Late to the Party. Here is my review of the 2006 novel I Loved You For Your Voice, by Sélim Nassib (Europa: 256 pages). I have long loved the music of Umm Kulthum (died 1954), the most famous singer in the Arabic-speaking world for four decades and more. She had the greatest poets and composers in her world as her disposal, and there are tales of quasiromatic attachments and devotions. This novel traces the bond between Kulthum and her most frequent lyricist, a poet who watches her career, her personal life, and the political life of their beloved Egypt in tumultuous parallel.

Rhimes and Reasons. I’ve just been paging through Shonda Rhimes’s new book, The Year of Yes (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $24.99) with a range of reactions. I confess to a prejudice against books written by people made very famous very recently (in the last 10 years, for which Rhimes qualifies, since her first huge smash, Grey’s Anatomy, hit in 2005) about some turning point or other in their lives. American success stories – especially in business and the celeb trades – tend to write these books, and it’s hard to escape the metallic aftertaste of self-worship.
Rhimes is creative and powerful. Her very existence, her very story, does a lot of people a lot of good. Granted. The book is of interest. Rhimes tells us she used to be shy – or at least used to hate parties. She describes how she overcame her fears. And the book is intended to uplift. Good for her, and all blessings on a new chapter in her life. I’m sure a lot of people will read it with what they imagine to be profit.

She recounts the 2013 epiphany that leads to a year of yes – of being open and engaged in the world, in her own life, in the future. Yeah, but ... this turning point could not really have been her turning point. She obviously said yes, no, and absolutely not to a lot of things way before 2013! By then, she'd been ruling the world for at least six years. Her spinoff Private Practice started its own very lucrative run in 2007, and Scandal, which helped her become the “Queen of Thursday Night” on network TV, started in 2012.

... What would happen … how many heads would explode … if someone were to suggest, abjectly, humbly, and hesitantly, that a lot of what Rimes has wrought is not all that great? Grey’s Anatomy has been really good viewing; it’s a show with a legacy and an outstanding ensemble cast. Scandal, too, has had its moments, although it pales next to really good political TV such as House of Cards or Borgen. But How to Get Away with Murder is overwrought, gesticulating, garish clumsiness. Viola Davis is my goddess and can do no wrong – but the cast around her are not very good, and the plot went blooey almost instantly and just gets blooier.

Poetry. I am excited by New Directions’ coming republication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay (144 pages: $15.95), a centennial reprint of the epochal 1915 collection of Pound’s inimitable versions of Chinese poems, bursting like an idiosyncratic meteor on English poetry, helping shape 20th-century verse. Cathay still crackles. Just to look at poems like his redoing of Li Po’s “The River Merchant’s Wife” is to step into a cool, light-shocked field of new possibilities. And so may it ever be.
But there is one among us who is also a fine poet, and, unlike Pound, has an authentically intimate knowledge of Chinese and Chinese poetry. He is David Hinton, and for more than a quarter-century he has patiently been wresting the finest of classical Chinese verse into excellent English poetry. This is, quietly, one of the most astounding poetic feats of our generation. His latest is I Ching: The Book of Change (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 161 pages, $20). You may have read I Ching before, but Hinton’s translation (not just “rendering” or “transcreation”) gives us something precious: fine poetry in sturdy contemporary English that resonates with, even if it cannot reproduce, the delicate profundity of the original. He’s just great. May I also recommend Hinton’s Selected Poems of Wang Wei (New Directions: 168 pages $14.95), and the ultimate gift in my view, a volume into which you can dip whenever you need short bursts of loveliness, his Classical Chinese Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 509 pages, $25).

That is quite enough! Bye!

1 comment:

  1. Great to read this and see a treasure trove of interesting stuff to follow up on and discover! I am especially glad to see mention of Marilynne Robinson, such an extraordinary writer. Heard part 1 of her conversation with the President, glad part 2 is now available. Love Gilead and Home, looking forward to Lila.