December 7, 2008
Nooteboom's latest novel has two protagonists. One, a young and wealthy Brazilian woman, travels to Australia, hoping to recover her life after she has been raped and left for dead in a Sao Paolo favela. There she encounters the second, a Dutch literary critic who has just undergone a different sort of life-changing experience. Nooteboom's writing is quiet, meditative and playful, recalling Italo Calvino. "Grey is the best of all colours: a hidden sun saving its warmth for the other side of the world and the stories written there," Nooteboom writes, typically, making magic from previously unobserved phenomena and those smallest of human interactions that can lead to revival.
"The Assignment" by Friedrich Durrenmatt ( University of Chicago)
Durrenmatt, who died in 1990, was another writer who packed explosive power into novels notable for their brevity as well as their ingenuity. "The Assignment," like his earlier book "The Pledge" (memorably filmed by Sean Penn, with Jack Nicholson), operates in one way like a thriller, in others like an apocalyptic fable. The setting is North Africa, where a woman has been raped and killed near a desert ruin. Her husband hires a filmmaker, F, to reconstruct and, therefore, solve the crime in a documentary. F, inevitably, soon finds her own identity bleeding into that of the victim. This story -- with its setting and its themes of violence and terrorism -- has a startlingly contemporary feel.
"Discourses and Selected Writings" by Epictetus (Penguin)
Epictetus was a teacher and Greco-Roman thinker, a freed slave who observed Nero's court firsthand and then opened a school of philosophy in Nicopolis on the Adriatic coast of Greece. This was in the early 2nd century. His informal lectures were recorded by a student and form one of the central planks of Stoicism. Epictetus deals with freedom and imprisonment, illness and fear -- the stuff of life. The advice, free of any religious context, still sounds good: "If you want to make progress, put up with being perceived as ignorant or naïve," he writes. "If you do impress others as somebody, don't altogether believe it." Bingo. Newly translated by Robert Dobbin.
"The Post Office Girl" by Stefan Zweig ( New York Review Books)
The Viennese-born Zweig fled Austria in 1934, following Hitler's rise to power. Eventually he committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, and this amazing novel was found, almost completed, after his death. In a way it limns out the social circumstances that spawned Nazism. Christine, a young middle-class woman, most of her family impoverished by World War I, ekes out a drab life, working in a post office. Out of the blue a telegram arrives, from a rich aunt, and for a while Christine is given a glimpse of the high life, which is then withdrawn. Then she meets Ferdinand, an embittered war veteran, and the two of them pursue an affair in flea-bag hotels. Zweig gives an almost overpowering sense of what it means to be crushed by lack of money. The story is, for this writer, unusually noir and oozes dread as the plot heads inevitably toward crime. Translated into English for the first time by Joel Rotenberg.
"The Financier" by Theodore Dreiser (Penguin)
Here's another old novel that has gained fresh relevance. "The Financier" shocked America when it first came out, showing a central character, Frank Cowperwood (a composite of rapacious Gilded Age capitalists, like Collis Huntington, the brains behind Southern Pacific), who pursues money utterly without scruple. He deals and double-deals, and the public good doesn't come into it. "Neither dogma nor fear is operative," Dreiser writes, as Cowperwood betrays, and is betrayed in turn. "I satisfy myself," Cowperwood says, sounding like a contemporary master of the universe. Dreiser was a clunky writer, but "The Financier," like "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy," has irresistible narrative drive. Published in 1912, it also tackled, and announced, themes of greed and money that are still central to the culture.
"The Origins of Financial Crises" by George Cooper (Vintage)
The credit crunch goes on, and financial analyst George Cooper provides a timely analysis of why and how this happened. Cooper argues that markets, left to themselves, are far from efficient and get locked into feedback mechanisms that lead inevitably to cycles of boom and bust. For a while Cooper had been warning that letting the markets do exactly what they wanted would lead us back to the 1930s. Having worked for Deutsche Bank, J.P. Morgan and Goldman-Sachs, he knew his stuff, and his warnings proved timely and awfully true. A clear and useful book.
"Tulipmania" by Anne Goldgar (University of Chicago)
In the 1630s, the Netherlands was seized by a speculative fever surrounding . . . tulips. This phenomenon has become, in the centuries that have followed, a paradigm for how writers about finance consider the madness of bubbles and the mania that the naked profit motive can provoke. The history of tulipmania has, in other words, become a different sort of bubble, an anecdote that tends to be divorced from the particular circumstances and society that produced it. In this delightful revisionist history, Anne Goldgar takes us back to the period, evoking the problems and excitement of the carnival. The real damage done, she argues, was not financial but "the breakdown of honor, and the destruction of trust." History does repeat itself but in ways that merit the kind of close examination that Goldgar brings to bear.
"Burnham of Chicago" by Thomas Hines (University of Chicago)
Hines, professor emeritus of history and architecture at UCLA, is one of the great architectural historians of the day. His work on Richard Neutra is exemplary, and here's a welcome new edition of his first book about Daniel Burnham, the brains behind the Chicago World's Fair and the greatest architect/businessman of the early part of the 20th century. Burnham thought big, planned big, sometimes failed big -- and Hines shows, not only how he balanced making buildings with the city politics, but also how important architecture was to the growth of Chicago and American civilization in general. Hines mourns that Burnham could never surpass the failed Louis Sullivan in terms of design genius but celebrates Burnham's talent for shaking and moving. And therein lies a very American tale.
"Poetry State Forest" by Bernadette Mayer (New Directions)
The Brooklyn-born poet Mayer tells how, when her kids were growing up, she'd bring chocolate bars to readings to keep them quiet, even though they weren't allowed candy at home: "it only backfired / if the reading lasted too long, then / there'd be hell to pay but I deserved it / right? After a while if I knew / the reading'd be long i'd bring two / so i began to think of long readings / as two-chocolate-bar readings, eventually / i'd bring two just in case, sometimes saving one / poetry is as good as chocolate / /chocolate's as good as poetry." The poems in this excellent collection are fresh, startling and often very funny: "on a cold rainy Sunday in may / we bought a new spatula at target (tar-jay) / to flip us over / the cloud-cover." Lovely stuff.
"The Romantic Dogs" by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions)
It seems that the deceased Chilean master is everywhere right now, following the success of his great novels "The Savage Detectives" and "2666." But Bolaño considered himself first of all a poet, and "The Romantic Dogs," his first collection to be published in English, tells us why. These poems, translated by Laura Healy, burn off the page and are instantly memorable. In "Lupe," he describes his relationship with a teenage hooker: "It was so easy to ride Lupe and feel like a man / and feel wretched. It was easy to get her / in your rhythm and it was easy to listen as she prattled on / about the latest horror films she'd seen / at Bucareli Theater. / Her leopard legs would wrap around my waist / /and she'd sink her head into my chest, searching for my / nipples or my heartbeat. / This is the part of you I want to suck, she said to me / one night. / What, Lupe? Your heart." Stunning.
Rayner's "Paperback Writers" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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