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Jeff Simon: Holiday season for books is here already

Jeff Simon

Too soon? Well, not really. Hannukah, after all, is less than a month away, after sundown Dec. 2.

So forgive, if you will, the genuine excitement of someone who loves books as much as I do for listing some books that really got my juices flowing. Many are literary, admittedly, and all but one are currently available online and in bookstores.

"Tailspin: The People and the Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall -- and Those Fighting to Reverse It," by Steven Brill. (Knopf, 441 pages, $28.95). To anyone older than 40, the subject has been crying out for the publication not of one book but, in fact, dozens. I don't know that anyone years ago would have picked one of the authors to be the fellow who once gave us Court TV. But ever since Time magazine gave us that cover story about the costs of American health care, Steven Brill has been believable as one of the more heavyweight diagnosticians and analysts we have. What Brill chronicles here is nothing less than what he considers the hijacking of the American economy and First Amendment among many other precious American things. What was thus enabled was the feeling that "the world's greatest democracy and economy" appeared broken. We no longer try to envision what John F. Kennedy called "New Frontier" but are merely trying to "survive the present."A book of and for our time if ever there was one.

"The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2: 1956-63," edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (Harper, 1,025 pages, $45). The suicide of Sylvia Plath in the same year John F. Kennedy was murdered was, arguably, the milestone event in the feminism that would soon transform America's next 55 years and promises to transform the next 60. Here are the last words of the final letter, to her psychiatrist Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse Beussher: "My own lack of center, of mature identity, is a great torment, I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up... (The departure of estranged husband Ted Hughes would have been) manageable. But there is this damned, self-induced freeze. I am suddenly in agony, desperate thinking, Yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die and be done with it." Which she did seven days after that letter was dated, thereby animating escalating expanding regret and ever-widening fury way beyond the precincts of literature.

"The William H. Gass Reader." (Knopf, 910 pages, $40). Another of the most commanding literary titles of this period is this posthumous self-created selection by one of the most extraordinary current masters of American prose. He died in 2017. Here at 87, William H. Gass says "only the past is likely to have much duration ... the present, which is at best a sliver of cake too small for its plate, while the future fear it may cease before having been. I hear it running to get here, its labored breath like an old man--eighty-seven--on the stairs." He was not only one of the great novelists and short -story writers of the late 20th century, but he was and remains on the great essayists. Included are chunks of his novels "Omensetter's Luck" and "The Tunnel," and his story collections (including the most influential "In The Heart of the Heart of the Country") and essays on everyone from Colette and Rabelais to Borges with some subjects--James Joyce, Gertrude Stein--recurring. For all his formidable intellectualism and erudition, Gass is a writer of great playfulness and stylistic electricity. To have him digest his own life's work for our pleasure is a great privilege.

"The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005," by Zachary Leader (Knopf, 767 pages, $40). Bellow, Toni Morrison and Isaac Bashevis Singer were the last American novelists to win the Nobel Prize. That was when the Nobel Prize for Literature truly was the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of them all, Bellow was the most significant intellectual force. This is the second volume of the biography by British critic and academic Zachary Leader which has supplanted James Atlas' as the definitive one.

"Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention," by David Shields (Thought Catalogue Books, 259 pages, $12.95 paper). One remarkable paradox of Donald Trump is that despite his oft-expressed conviction that journalists are "the enemies of the people" journalism about Trump pervades every inch of American culture, as does his presence in all media. Books about him easily rise to the higher reaches of best-sellers lists -- the last of those including Bob Woodward's "Fear," Omarosa's "Unhinged," and Stormy Daniels' Trump-centric memoir "Full Disclosure." What is a certainty is that no Trump book will come close to the electrifying eccentricity of this book in which an academically trained critic and free-form writer puts together meditations, quotes, analyses and anecdotes on Trump to understand the president and us. Shields' book would, no doubt, brazenly epitomize everything his partisans would consign to "fake news" or worse. But you're unlikely to encounter another book so recklessly and unpredictably full of insight, even wisdom. As part of the book's publicity, Shields is quoted telling all potential readers that name calling is worthless. "The moment you call Trump a monster, you've stopped trying to understand him and the conditions that gave rise to him and why he resonates with so many people. There's nothing useful about that sort of moral self-congratulation." Shields is my nomination for the most unpredictable and exciting writer we have in America at the moment, the most startling and innovative. An equally provocative and even more personal Shields book will be published in early February, "The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn and Power."

"American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring," by William Girardi  (Liveright, 462 pages, $30). "Whatever they are," says William Girardi, "Americans are unapologetically in the Now and racing toward tomorrow." Here is an anthology of seven years work by a superb critic whose point of view is that "we are new and getting newer all the time." His subjects are everything from Catholic novelists, hate mail and the pseudo-porn of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" books by that pseudonymous "charlatan amorist" E. L. James, to Poe, Melville, Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson. A brilliant writer whose highest words of praise for others often rather nicely describe his own work.

"American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures" by America Ferrera (Gallery Books, 309 pages, $26). A wonderful book for gift season. Ferrera is an unusual figure of a sort we are beginning to increasingly see. She is so much more than an award-winning actress for "Ugly Betty" and now "Superstore." She is a highly visible social and political activist and, in this book, an extremely fine anthologist of other people's thoughts about being American even though so many could consider them "other." So among those you'll read here are Roxane Gay, Issae Rae, Jeremy Lin, and Uzo Aduba. I have a feeling that Lin-Manuel Miranda's tale of how the Latino kids in his class had a "second Christmas" on Jan. 6 is likely to make the rounds after people read this.





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