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An assortment of books to make the spirit a little brighter

No apologies here -- none whatsoever. It's that season when editor's choices don't just arrive in the usual biweekly pairs-plus, they come by the carload. But that's the very nature of books as gifts: they're portable, far less expensive than a Ferrari and can be seen as generic or as intimate and personal as the giver desires.

This holiday edition of Editor's Choice, then, is for readers and buyers who might be stressed by what the world expects during Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Not quite memoirs

What may be my favorite book of the season is James Laughlin's "The Way It Wasn't" (New Directions, 343 pages, $25 paper) in which the experiment in "auto-bug-offery" by the founder and publisher of New Directions was lovingly and posthumously assembled from notes by Barbara Epler, New Directions' editor-in-chief, and Laughlin's son-in-law, Daniel Javitch. Laughlin was a skier, a playboy, a poet and the heir of a Pittsburgh steel fortune, none of which would have made his 83 years on earth notable if Ezra Pound hadn't told him when Laughlin was an idolatrous young Harvard boy that if he really wanted to make a contribution to literature he'd stop trying to be a poet, take his wealth and become a publisher.

And so Laughlin created New Directions, the little house without which modern literature (and Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, Celine, etc.) would have been immensely poorer. Arranged alphabetically in stories and snippets that may or may not be true, this is a wildly entertaining record of a unique and uniquely valuable life in literature. From obscene schoolboyish blasts at Paul Bowles' moral and physical endowments to Lillian Hellan hissing "f--- off, you rapist" through a four-inch crack in the door, this is a literary life like no other.

Gore Vidal's "Point to Point Navigation" (Doubleday, 277 pages, $32) is the second volume of his memoirs (the first was "Palimpsest"). So much is repeated from his masterful essays and "Palimpsest" that it is, in part, a disappointment. And, too, the death of his lover of half a century, Howard Auster, has, among other things, taken away his first reader, resulting in stylistic infelicities more depressingly frequent from a writer of such past elegance. Even so, Vidal's majestic wit and positively magisterial life are intact for consistent edification, amusement, exhibition and even emotional affect.

The marvelous new revised edition of "The Letters of E.B. White" (HarperCollins, 713 pages, $35) comes with a dandy new foreward by John Updike and letters from 1976 to 1985 (the year of his death) that couldn't be included in this book's first edition. With a new movie molestation of his classic "Charlotte's Web" almost upon us, E.B. White-consciousnesss will temporarily wax, leaving this essential American life-in-letters as the indispensable and glorious corrective on the archetypal New Yorker writer whose decidedly questionable luck it was to write two of the most magical and beloved children's books of all time, "Stuart Little," and "Charlotte's Web." The sensibility that produced the masterworks, though, was the archetypal New Yorker sensibility -- so sophisticated and urbane that its only possible refuge was country life.

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More than people want to know

No character assassins of modern times were ever more gleeful than the public nuisances who put out Spy Magazine in the late 1980s and early '90s. Here, from the upward-bound founding co-editors Kurt Anderson and Graydon Carter and deputy editor George Kalogerakis, is "Spy: The Funny Years" (Melcher Media/Miramax, 305 pages, $39.95), the tell-most scrapbook of how they -- sort of -- got away with it and launched us into the current blowtorch public realm of the blogosphere, "The Daily Show" and the Onion. Who else could wonder whether "Dead Comedienne Totie Fields" and "rock vulgarian Ozzy Osbourne" were separated at birth? Not to mention "Nose Flesh Amputee Marlo Thomas" and "former black person Michael Jackson"?

Here's writer and playwright Paul Rudnick quoted in the epigraph to Chapter 9: "I remember Graydon calling a meeting and announcing that the magazine had just gotten new libel insurance and he wanted to try it out. And so everyone tried to think of someone we could taunt." Whether or not it's the season's most entertaining book, it's clear that, though quite dead, Spy Magazine is still nasty after all these years.

"The Dog Called 911: A Book of Lists from The Smoking Gun" (Little Brown, 218 pages, $15.99 paper) celebrates the Web site that is the new haven for enlightened celebrity dirt-farmers and connoisseurs of absurdity. You haven't really lived in our world until you've read all the messages Charlie Sheen left on Denise Richards' answering machine (according to her lawyers) -- not to mention Andrea Mackris' legal suit charges against Bill O'Reilly which the editors cheerfully hyperbolize as "The Greatest Law Suit Ever Filed."

If Miles Davis' family hadn't cut Miles' son (and guardian in drug-bent late life) Gregory out of the late jazz master's will, we'd probably never be able to read "Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis" (Backbeat, 168 pages, $24.95 paper). As it is, it completes the portrait of Miles begun in "Miles", the told-to autobiography put together by Quincy Troupe. He was one of a handful of modern jazz' greatest musicians -- and an unequivocal, at times almost unrelieved, monster. Not "Daddy Dearest" says Gregory Davis (now a psychotherapist). But then it doesn't need to be.

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Uptown, downtown

Edward Gorey's "Amphigorey Again" (Harcourt Unpaginated, $35 paper) is the latest collection of toxically whimsical tales, rhymes, alphabets and such by the late, great drolly exquisite illustrator and macabre celebrant of high Victorian aristocratic mayhem who died at 75 in 2000. For those who only know him from the title credits of PBS' "Masterpiece Theater," his was one of the truly sublime creative minds of 20th century Manhattan.

"Edie: Girl on Fire" by Melissa Painter and David Weisman (Chronicle Books, 192 pages, $50) is being released at approximately the same time as "Factory Girl," the film about Andy Warhol's "It" Girl and New York scenemaker Edie Sedgwick, the pre-Paris Hilton socialite and avatar of self-trashing fame-worship who helped invent the modern drug era form of slumming and died of an overdose at 28. A beautifully illustrated book of a life picturesquely thrown away.

On the other hand, the brilliantly designed "Up Is Up: New York's Downtown Literary Scene 1974-1992" by former Buffalo student Brandon Stosuy (NYU Press, 500 pages, $50 cloth, $29.95 paper) is even more full of downtown grunge from 1974 to 1992 but also the remarkable and vibrantly scruffy literature that sprang from it. It therefore makes its case for literary longevity. It's drug-wracked, full of horrors and sometimes magnificent but it's also as hygienic a way to experience Bohemia as you'll ever find (atmosphere can be fully ingested without risk of disease). Writers whose work is included are: Kathy Acker, Gary Indiana, Dennis Cooper, Spalding Gray, Richard Hell, Patrick McGrath and Eric Bogosian.

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Big ticket, smaller ticket

If you can't afford the six-figure price of new and vintage Ferraris (and who can?), you might be able to handle the $45 it costs to buy Dennis Adler's "Ferrari: The Road From Maranello" (Random House, 318 pages). Which may be just as well. You can soak up the history and beauty of one of the world's most extraordinary automobiles without worrying about the fenders being dinged in a parking lot by someone who drives a '92 Ford Taurus.

Similarly, if you can't afford the jaunt to Rome to see for yourself all the places "La Dolce Vita," "Roman Holiday" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" were filmed, there's always the splendidly illustrated "On Location: Cities of the World in Film" (Bucher/Prestel, 192 pages, $45) to take you there. The cities here are Beijing, Berlin, Chicago, Florence, Havana, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, New York, Paris, Prague, Rome, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo and Vienna.

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The company of poets

In a spectacular season of them, one of the most remarkable for sure is Frederick Seidel's "Ooga-Booga" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 102 pages, $24) in which a savage, Gothic sensibility meets a life of privilege (and its habits and landmarks) to produce poetry as harrowing -- and sometimes funny -- as any in our time. Sample lines from "The Bush Administration": "The United States of America preemptively eats the world./The doctrine of eat lest you be eaten/Is famished, roars/And tears their heads off before its own is sawed off."

Liam Rector's "The Executive Director of the Fallen World" (University of Chicago Press, 107 pages, $22.50) is even more blunt and combustible, though not as bloodthirsty. Here, in sum total, is "Larkin," presumably aimed at British bard of collapsing empire Philip Larkin: "The most even-tempered man/Ever known:/Always in a rage." See also "Who's in Charge of the Culture Now?" with its devastating final line for an answer: "Evil Nanny." Rector teaches at Bennington, whose students are lucky.

Among the more persistent candidates for the Nobel Prize is 71-year old Danish poet Inger Christensen, whose 1969 epic "It" has been amazingly translated by Susanna Nied (New Directions, 304 pages, $17.95 paper) and will abundantly demonstrate why. Anne Carson -- the kind of great younger poet perfect to have in one's corner -- says of Christensen in her introduction "this must be what it was like to hear Hesiod in the eighth century B.C. recite his cosmogonic poems." It's "at once a hymn of praise to reality and a scathing comment on how we make reality what it is." A great poet in the grandest modern manner.

Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.

-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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