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January 4, 2012

Season’s Readings: A Literary Guide

Novels, comics, biographies, memoirs, short stories and more — a list of cool books to cozy up with this winter

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

By Don DeLillo

Scribner, 213 pgs., $24

For decades, Don DeLillo has been exploring the American psychological and intellectual landscape in novels that demand full readerly immersion. Whether it’s a massive tome like “Underworld” or a slimmer book like “Cosmopolis,” his books construct sprawling worlds that allow his intricate pop-culture mythologies and grand theories about humanity to develop gradually, patiently, even playfully. By contrast, he has published only a handful of short stories, which offer less room to tease out larger ideas. After a 40-year career, he is just now publishing his first collection of short fiction.

The nine stories in “The Angel Esmeralda” span nearly 30 years of DeLillo’s writing, yet a common theme connects them all: DeLillo is, as always, interested in the remove from which we see humanity. Astronauts watch from space as civilization destroys and rebuilds itself; two precociously intellectual college students devise a backstory for a mysterious old man they see on the sidewalk but never confront; a man watches his children on television from a minimum-security prison.

DeLillo’s prose mimics that sense of distance, which means he can come across as cold. In particular, his dialogue often reads like the characters are holding two different conversations at once — a self-conscious mannerism. Weaker stories like “The Ivory Acrobat” become emotionally impenetrable and strangely uninhabited, but a few achieve a haunting, spiritual open-endedness. In the gloriously ambiguous title story, the face of a dead girl appears on a billboard, but is it the work of God or just a trick of lights and subway trains? Could it be both?

That story is powerful, but ultimately DeLillo is less interested in individual characters than in humanity in its entirety, as it destroys itself or steels itself against new horrors. Even as civilization flails, “people had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves,” says a character in “Human Moments from World War III.” “They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of purpose, shared destiny.”

Any reader familiar with DeLillo’s novels will recognize this idea, which he has examined repeatedly. But his shorter fiction rarely feels large enough to contain such an immense subject. Instead, he creates stories as snow globes, precise yet inert, too perfectly self-contained to show the world back to us. —Stephen Deusner

Zero Day

By David Baldacci

Grand Central Publishing, 436 pgs., $27.99

David Baldacci’s forte is crisp action developed through equal parts narrative and dialogue. The tradition continues in “Zero Day,” albeit with the introduction of a new protagonist.

A decorated combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, John Puller is now a special agent in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Division. Puller knows something strange is afoot when he is sent on a solo mission to investigate the murder of Col. Matthew Reynolds of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Ordinarily, the violent death of an officer and his entire family would call for legions of analysts and technicians, but Puller is sent alone to the hills of West Virginia to work with local law enforcement as they slog through mounting body counts amid a dying economic and social structure.

Dichotomies abound. Coal-mining executives live in gated mansions and swim in enclosed pools to escape the soot and ash that spew from blasting sites. Tunnelers, forced into unemployment by the more expedient technique, squat in houses left abandoned when a military installation closed down decades ago. When someone dies, neighbors rush in to appropriate the meager possessions left behind.

More entertaining than engrossing, “Zero Day” is not Baldacci’s best work. And though the plot is, at times, as circuitous as the switchbacks winding through the mine-ravaged terrain, it is definitely worth a read. Thematically, “Zero Day” reminds us that the sins of the elders visit plagues on the children, that haves continue to prosper while have-nots perish, and that humanity and its institutions create entities they cannot control. —Linda Baker

The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun

By Robert Greenfield

Simon & Schuster, 417 pgs., $30

“The Last Sultan” is a cleanly written biography of the founder and guiding spirit of Atlantic Records.

Ahmet Ertegun was born to be a historical figure. His father, a bureaucrat for the Ottoman Empire, later became a close adviser of Kemal Ataturk at the founding of modern Turkey. Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi followed their father on diplomatic missions to the United Kingdom and ultimately to the United States, where he was appointed ambassador. By the time the two boys arrived in the U.S., they had an air of sophistication. But they were not free from the prejudices of post-war America.

The tales of 13-year-old Ahmet breaking away from a babysitter and undertaking a history-making odyssey into 1930s Harlem (where he met piano titan James P. Johnson) are enough to turn a jazz lover the deepest shade of green.

Reading “The Last Sultan” with a digital music service like Rhapsody or Pandora is a musical education in itself, but it’s also a history lesson on post-war America, race and civil rights. The image of the bald, preppy Ertegun and his jug-headed genius business partner Jerry Wexler shouting the chorus to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” behind Big Joe Turner in 1954 is a welcome counterpoint to the typically black vs. white take on the period.

But it was a rough business, and the sale of Atlantic in the late 1960s was as much about running from some dirty accounting as any motive for profit. Good thing, as the sale is considered one of the worst business deals in history. The tensions between the aristocratic Ertegun and his working-class hit machine Wexler make for the raciest case study in business history. —Joe Boone

What It Is Like To Go to War

By Karl Marlantes

Atlantic Monthly Press

288 pgs., $25

For those (thankfully, most of us) who have no direct experience in war but have learned about it mainly from books, the number of texts available is virtually inexhaustible — ranging from treatises like Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War” to novels like Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” to journalism like Sebastian Junger’s succinctly titled “War.” But few of these approaches have the impact of Karl Marlantes’ relatively thin volume on the subject, “What It Is Like To Go to War” — of all things, an essay, but one richly infused with example upon example of combat particulars taken from the author’s own direct experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam.

A caveat: Marlantes is well-equipped in humanist insights, as any former Rhodes scholar might be expected to be. And the power of his language is as luminous here as it was in his prize-winning novel “Matterhorn,” which also treated the war in Vietnam. But do not expect knee-jerk anti-war attitudes. This is a book that contains such confessional passages as: “We all shot anybody we saw, never giving anybody a chance for surrender … I was no longer thinking how to accomplish my objective with the lowest loss of life to my side. I just wanted to keep killing gooks.”

Marlantes has a proper distance on revelations like this. With full self-knowledge, he refers to such ethnic name-calling as “pseudospeciation,” the inevitable conferring of less-than-human status on one’s wartime enemy. But, while deploring that fact, he readily embraces what he sees as the reality behind it — that humanity is a species forever ready, even eager, to make war on an Other and that attempts to deny or repress that “shadow” within will inevitably result in unmanageable atrocities, not merely on the battlefield but at home. He cites the children of pacifist neighbors, raised on a rigid renunciation of all violent urges, found torturing insects in the yard.

The trick, Marlantes suggests, is to honor one’s enemy to the degree actual combat permits, even to include him, along with remorse for one’s own, in prayers for the dead (a sample of which is included in the book). And it is only by doing duty to one’s full nature, with eyes wide open, that one can also tap the law-abiding citizen and loving spouse and parent within.

“We all have shit on our shoes,” Marlantes observes. “We’ve just got to realize it so we don’t track it into the house.”

In a sense, “What It Is Like To Go to War” is a paean to Mars. But it is also a plea to fuse Ares (or Mars) with Aphrodite, as well as to understand and come to terms with the opposites within oneself and with various other polarities — mind-body, ego-id, and the like — which are already well known.

Marlantes’ book gets a little talky from time to time, but this is sophisticated stuff, written by a decorated combat veteran who was willing to shelve his studies at Oxford to serve in Vietnam. The well-earned wisdom of this book could profit anyone — from the most peaceful aesthete to the most gung-ho boot-camp recruit. —Jackson Baker

The Someday Funnies

Edited by Michel Choquette

Abrams ComicArts, 216 pgs., $55

The backstory: Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner asks Michel Choquette, an editor at National Lampoon, to put together a 24-page collection of original comic strips that dealt with one subject: the 1960s. To be called “The Someday Funnies,” the strips would broach that decade from the perspective of different artistic voices. Choquette spent months traveling the world pitching the idea and commissioning work from figures as diverse as Federico Fellini, Frank Zappa, Tom Wolfe and René Goscinny.

But Wenner passed on the book. The year was 1972.

Choquette then secured another publisher and kept stockpiling strips and meeting with people like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Charlie Watts. (None of whom, alas, produced.)

Then yet another publisher backed out. Self-publishing seemed an option. Financiers circled the project — and disappeared. Dejected, Choquette shelved years of work and moved on with his life. “The Someday Funnies” became an object of myth in the industry. All of those strips were locked away in a trunk and forgotten, like suppressed memories.

Three decades later, a journalist wrote about the failed project, reviving interest and leading to, of all things, publisher interest. Choquette secured the money to publish the book he had started a lifetime before. A third of his contributors had by that time died.

And now, at long last, “The Someday Funnies” is out, and it’s about as impressive as you can imagine: 129 comic strips, by 169 writers and artists from 15 countries, delving into the 1960s, produced in the early and mid-1970s, an unreleased primary source of sorts, presented gorgeously.

Great writers, illustrators, thinkers, and visionaries of Europe and America, all in one place: Will Eisner, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kirby, Harlan Ellison, Moebius, Ralph Steadman, Pete Townshend, Kim Deitch, Walter and Louise Simonson, Archie Goodwin, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Kurtzman, Sergio Aragonés, Gahan Wilson, Red Grooms, Dick Giordano, Denny O’Neil.

“The Someday Funnies”: It’s well worth the wait. —Greg Akers

The Marbled Swarm

By Dennis Cooper

Harper Perennial, 208 pgs., $14.99 (paperback)

Question: Is “The Marbled Swarm” — a meditation on teenage perversion and ultraviolence — Dennis Cooper’s answer to “The Aristocrats,” a rambling, immensely perverse anti-joke that comedian Steven Wright once dubbed “the secret handshake” among professional clowns?

Like “The Aristocrats,” Cooper’s darkly comic monologue, delivered by an unnamed and not entirely reliable narrator, is about twisted family acts. The story is delivered in self-conscious prose, like hack historical fiction wedding “Northanger Abbey” to “The Silence of the Lambs.” And in this go-round, the cult author of “Frisk” and “My Loose Thread” is less interested in shocking his readers than using voyeurism, rape, self-mutilation, necrophilia, necrofagia and other atrocities to build a long, intentionally laughless joke about class, Gothic horror, manga and top-shelf literary porn.

“The Marbled Swarm” refers to a peculiar manner of persuasive speaking employed by the story’s narrator, a fine if fratricidal young cannibal with daddy issues and billions at his disposal. The nameless speaker visits and ultimately buys a chateau in the French countryside, which, like his childhood home, is riddled with secret passages perfect for dangerous liaisons and Scooby Doo-like shenanigans. It’s also the site of authentic horrors, including the accidental death (or murder) of a teenage boy that mirrors events in the sicko narrator’s own recent history.

What follows is a pornographic “Da Vinci Code” filled with repugnant acts, theatrical metaphors, and a telling micro-essay contrasting Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye” with “The Story of O” and other “novels titled virtually like it” that “seemed to titillate a marginally better class of reader” but whose artfulness was too thin “to work as a deodorant.”

A 2005 documentary film about “The Aristocrats” demonstrated that, with enough skill, a fool can get away with murder. “The Marbled Swarm” is the same trick tailored to fit a cast of certifiably Cooper-esque players. —Chris Davis

Secret Historian: 
The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade

By Justin Spring Farrar

Straus and Giroux, 458 pgs., $18 (paperback)

There’s certainly a ways to go in the fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, but in the days of novelist, English professor and sexual renegade Samuel Steward, homosexuality was a crime punishable by fines and imprisonment in most states. That was less than 80 years ago.

Although Steward’s name is little-known outside cult literary circles, Justin Spring’s 2010 biography “Secret Historian” serves as a snapshot of how far we’ve come in the LGBT civil rights struggle.

Self-described as an “invert,” a Freudian term once used to describe gay men, Steward chronicled his thousands of sexual escapades with fellow educators, sailors and curious straight men in his “stud file,” a library card catalog filled with erotic details. One such card even described Steward having oral sex with silent-film actor Rudolph Valentino.

But despite Steward’s seeming openness about his sexuality, he wrestled in the closet for part of his teaching career, especially after the State College of Washington fired him for his portrayal of straight prostitution in his first novel, “Angels on the Bough.”

In 1949, Steward began collaborating with acclaimed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who encouraged the writer to keep more detailed records of his sex life. Around that same time, he abandoned his teaching career to become, unlikely as it sounds, a tattoo artist, and shortly after, he produced gay erotica pulp fiction.

Written under the pen name Phil Andros, the works were risqué even in the more liberal 1960s. For example, in “San Francisco Hustler,” Steward describes a leather and BDSM ménage à trois of San Francisco police officers. But as Spring writes, “The tone of the Phil Andros books had been resolutely sex-affirmative, despite the dark, antihomosexual atmosphere of the times they described.”

Spring’s book comprehensively details Steward’s life, using photographs, papers, drawings and manuscripts, which had been collecting dust in a San Francisco attic. But at times, the book indulges in excessive name-dropping of writers and Steward associates who’ve likely been forgotten outside academia. Thankfully, there’s plenty of erotic tales woven throughout (as well as some rather kinky photographs) to keep readers of this secret history interested. —Bianca Phillips

Citrus County

By John Brandon

McSweeney’s, 216 pgs., $14 (paperback)

John Brandon’s “Citrus County” is a different sort of coming-of-age story, set in Florida’s bland middle ground between the gulf and the ocean. In the novel, Toby has built up a rigidly unforgiving outlook from the loss of his parents and subsequent life with his uncle, an emotionally unstable presence. But by the tender age of 14, Toby finds a kindred spirit in Shelby, a newcomer to town who moved with her father and little sister, Kaley, when their mother died.

One afternoon, Toby encounters Shelby with her 4-year-old sister on the playground and decides on a plan of action: He steals Kaley from her bed one night and stows her in an underground bunker. Toby goes about the business of caring for his charge based on the reasoning that people often don’t get to choose where they are. No one discovers Toby’s crime, and his cunning affords him the comfort of being dismayed at the public’s waning interest in Kaley. Meanwhile, Shelby treads the tide of reporters and FBI agents and pursues Toby — who first called out to her as someone with whom she could possibly relate. As Toby slowly gives in to her, he begins to realize the world of promise that he’s jeopardized.

“Citrus County,” John Brandon’s second novel, is a troubling, poignant work that dares to examine the intricacies of emotional survival. —Ashley Johnston

The Table Comes First: 
Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

By Adam Gopnik

Knopf, 320 pgs., $25.95 

If taking on “the meaning” of food seems a formidable endeavor, then you already accept Adam Gopnik’s premise in “The Table Comes First”: The way we eat occupies our time and energy, and yet so few of us truly understand the significance of food in our lives.

In this collection of essays, Gopnik traces the development of our modern eating systems, weaving in the counterbalancing drugs of coffee and alcohol, the coquetry of restaurant dining, the symbiotic development of the restaurant scene and the critic, and the
seductive role of language in creating appetite. Both methodical scholar and impassioned practitioner, Gopnik presents the political, philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the restaurant, the recipe book, the French culinary tradition, and the transformation of our animal need for sustenance into an emblem of civilization.

But it isn’t all intellectual inquiry. Gopnik brings a wealth of experience and the warmth of personal anecdotes to make this a compelling read in its own right. Anyone who has ever experienced the painful chasm between their vision for a recipe and its final outcome; anyone who remembers their first experience dining out and the endless promise of that leather-bound menu; and anyone who considers the table as the heart of the home and the hub of social activity, this book is for you. —Hannah Sayle

Walking on Air: The Aerial Adventures of Phoebe Omlie

By Janaan Sherman

University Press of Mississippi, 191 pgs., $30

Shortly after midnight on July 7, 1975, a 73-year-old woman died of lung cancer in the charity ward of an Indianapolis hospital. Weeks earlier, one of her friends wrote to another friend: “Phoebe is dying. The hotel where she lives is on skid row. Malnutrition, deaf, no possessions. And of course, no family.”

Her body was returned to Memphis, her longtime home, and buried next to her husband in a humble grave. Seven years later, officials with Memphis International Airport dedicated their gleaming new control tower to Phoebe Omlie, recognizing her lasting contributions to our country’s aviation industry.

Enchanted by her first view of biplanes from her schoolroom window in Iowa, Omlie gained worldwide fame as one of America’s most famous aviators — a stunt pilot and aerial performer who walked along the wings of looping planes, won coast-to-coast air races, set speed and distance records, and then enjoyed a long career in Washington overseeing the development of airports and airplanes.

So what brought her from soaring in the heavens to a pauper’s death in Indiana?

In “Walking on Air,” Janaan Sherman stitches together the tattered fragments of Omlie’s life, and her efforts are impressive. Omlie neglected to write about her exploits and left behind few mementoes. So Sherman, chair of the history department at the University of Memphis, embarked on a 17-year cross-country quest that turned up airplane company records, letters, faded photographs, tattered newspaper clippings and scrapbooks.

The result is a compelling biography of an amazing woman — brave, stubborn and fiercely independent — whose life story is mostly forgotten. For decades, she was one of the most famous women in America, second only to Amelia Earhart in the world of flyers. But after the tragic death of her husband, also a pilot, and the end of her flying career, she seemed to lose her way. “Without a plane,” Sherman writes, “she was like a bird with a broken wing.”

“Walking on Air” is a great adventure story and also a parable about the fickle nature of fame. —Michael Finger

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

Twelve, 816 pgs., $30

Christopher Hitchens is the H.L. Mencken of our time — an atheist, journalist, man of letters, and prodigious reader and thinker who is always clear, forceful and interesting.

His latest book, a collection of previously published essays, puts his talents and wide range of interests on display in a big volume reminiscent of Mencken’s “A Mencken Chrestomathy,” right down to the chapter headings such as “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments.”

Hitchens — who died from esophageal cancer last month — sounds off on men and women of letters (most of them Englishmen like Hitchens himself), American immortals, dirty words, wine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Harry Potter. Many of the essays originally appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Guardian and Slate, but Hitchens is so prolific that even his ardent fans will probably find something new.

This is the perfect book for the bedside table so that it can be delved into for a half-hour or so every night until the thing is finished. It made me wonder why I didn’t read him more often and why I wasted so much time reading lesser essayists. It also makes much better reading than his 2010 memoir, “Hitch-22,” because of the broader subject matter. —John Branston

The Scottish Prisoner

By Diana Gabaldon

Delacorte, 448 pgs., $25

Set in pre-Revolutionary England and Ireland, “The Scottish Prisoner” is the story of a once-proud commander brought low by his English captors. It’s also a tale of how friendship can flourish across hereditary, economic, social and cultural bounds even when fraught with profound differences of opinion and inclination.

The star of the book, like the others in Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” novels, is Jamie Fraser, a Scottish laird whose ancestral holdings were seized after the ill-fated battle of Culloden Moor. He’s being held in bondage on an English estate called Helwater, where he secretly keeps watch over his young son, William, whose dead mother was unhappily married to an aged nobleman incapable of producing children.

But the relative peace of Jamie’s captivity is shattered when an English lord, John Grey, is sent to fetch him to London for Jamie’s aid in an attempt to court-martial and arrest an English major accused of wrongdoing. The Scot is not happy about being conscripted, especially since John once propositioned Jamie to become his lover. Meanwhile, Jamie is contacted by an Irishman who is deeply involved in a plot to overthrow King George and restore Charles Stuart — Bonnie Prince Charlie — to what he believes is the exiled noble’s rightful place on the British throne. Jamie wants no part of yet another plot against the English monarchy and initially resists the stubborn man’s attempts to draw him into it.

On the way to retrieve the English major from his ill-gotten estate in Ireland, Jamie and John are forced to help each other on numerous occasions. Jamie ignores John’s soulful crush (at one point, he refers to John as “the wee pervert”) and deals with him, if gruffly, as a friend and confidant. At the same time, John, first and foremost a soldier of His Majesty’s Army, strives mightily not to reveal his feelings for the brawny, redheaded Scot.

This is a rollicking tale of days long dead, but as usual, Gabaldon manages to bring it to life with wit and verve. “The Scottish Prisoner” is a great read and more complex than your average historical romance. —Lindsay Jones