By Richard Rayner
October 12, 2008
Baxter, the film critic and biographer of Spielberg, Buñuel and others, fell in love and moved from Los Angeles to Paris some years back, from whence he has dispatched a series of fluent, witty and moving memoirs. The first, "A Pound of Paper," detailed his obsession with books and his early, failed, literary scufflings. The latest, subtitled "A Paris Christmas," tells how he prepared and cooked a feast for his French in-laws. To this daunting task Baxter brought a flair that is reflected here on the page. "Even as I washed down a butter-drenched gobbet of tender lobster with a glass of crisp Pouilly-Fuisse, I could feel our Christmas dinner slipping out of control," he writes, and the prose invites us to savor and enjoy the giddy slide. A swift yet sumptuous read.
"Soldier's Heart" by Elizabeth D. Samet (Picador)
Elizabeth Samet, a civilian, teaches English literature at West Point, and here she recounts the experience of reading Homer, Hemingway and Wallace Stevens with young men and women who are about to go fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. "As the Army, in the wake of Vietnam, became more profoundly isolated from certain important sectors of the civilian society it serves, the impression grew in certain quarters that the military was, to borrow a phrase from Tim O'Brien, a 'jungle of robots,' " Samet writes, making it her task to upend that impression and offer us instead a clear-sighted view of questing, courageous and highly intelligent warriors. Her sensitivities, and theirs, exhilarate us. This book won a Times book prize last year. It's great.
"The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades" by Usama Ibn Munqidh (Penguin Classics)
Usama, born in 1095, was a warrior, a courtier and a distinguished man of letters, a witness to the Crusades, and therefore to the encounters that created the conflict between the Islamic world and the West. This book contains his autobiographical writings and firsthand accounts, and it's full of amazing stuff. "One of the most spectacular spear-thrusts that I witnessed was inflicted by a horseman from the Franks (may God confound them) on a horseman from our troops, called Sabah ibn Qunayb -- from the Kilab tribe. It cut through three rib-bones on his left side and then through three on his right. Finally the sharp edge of the spear-head struck his elbow joint, splitting it in two just like a butcher does with a joint of meat. He died instantly." Usama writes about bloody conflict with a cool eye, and with feelings about the strangeness of the other side that probably haven't changed much today. Newly translated by Paul Michael Cobb.
"Roseanna" by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Vintage)
Vintage, in its Black Lizard crime series, has just started to reissue the Swedish series, first published in the 1960s, that pretty much created the police procedural as we now know it. Sjowall and Wahloo, husband and wife, planned 10 books that, through crime, would offer a comprehensive picture of a society straining to contain its crime. The first, "Roseanna," introduces us to Det. Martin Beck and his team, tracking down the killer of a woman abused and tossed into a Swedish lake from a ferry. This book, and the others in the series, get inside the pace and boredom of police work while providing a richness of characterization that nobody had previously attempted. They really stand up. Newly introduced by Henning Mankell. Also available right now is the second in the series, "The Man Who Went Up in Smoke," introduced by Val McDermid.
"Gone to Ground" by John Harvey (Harcourt)
The prolific English writer John Harvey was, it's fair to say, among the first to follow the lessons of Sjowall and Wahloo. His series about the jazz-obsessed Charlie Resnick, based in drab Nottingham, took the detailed procedural to new depths of complexity, influencing, in turn, Ian Rankin and McDermid. Harvey retired Resnick some time back but gets going on another new series here, as detectives Will Grayson and his partner Helen Walker investigate the murder of a gay academic. This turns out to be connected to the death of a 1950s English movie star, though the reaches of eastern and midlands England through which Harvey's duo conduct their investigation recall the world of "Trainspotting," not Dirk Bogarde.
"Max Perkins: Editor of Genius" by A. Scott Berg (Berkley)
Here's a great reissue: Thirty years ago, biographer Berg plucked Max Perkins from the shadows of literary history and placed him where, as the man who discovered and nurtured Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, he belongs. Today, when publishing has been corporatized out of all recognition, the care that Perkins brought to his work, and the power he came to wield, and the decency with which he exercised it, seem almost knightly and incredible. Scott Fitzgerald -- insecure as always -- wanted to call his masterpiece "Gold Hatted Gatsby." Was he insane? Scott Berg tells how Perkins wooed him out of it. This book brings an era, and the nitty-gritty of its literature, thrillingly and tenderly to life.
"Street Meeting" by Mark Wild (University of California Press)
Wild's book looks at the early history of L.A., delving "into the question of ethno-racial interaction by examining a city that perhaps epitomized the explosive changes reverberating through the United States between the 1880s and Wolrd War II." At the beginning of the era, L.A. was little more than a village. By the end it was a "vast urban behemoth." Wild explores the change, particularly as it affected working-class, immigrant and African American newcomers. Previous histories of the period have tended to focus on views, either pro- or anti-, of the booster myth. This offers fascinating new perspectives, weaving together analysis with original sources and oral history. Wild is excellent on 1930s street politics and the LAPD's infamous Red Squad.
"Genius and Heroin" by Michael Largo (Harper)
Largo's study is subtitled, "And other variations, including pills, absinthe, crack, hash, martinis, bourbon and sex -- the illustrated catalogue of creativity, obsession and reckless abandon through the ages." The poet Chatterton is here, of course, and Kurt Cobain, and Poe, and Sid Vicious, and Simone Weil. On Tupac Shakur, Largo writes: "In 1996, at age twenty-five, he was nailed with four bullets in a drive-by shooting and died. After his cremation, a portion of his ashes were given to members of his band. They mixed Tupac's remains with the best weed they could find and smoked him in a joint." This paperback original is handsomely jacketed, lovingly designed, absurdly entertaining and most likely won't secure its author a Guggenheim.
"The First Poems in English" by Michael Alexander (Penguin Classics)
The title suggests something dry and dull. Nothing could be further from the truth. Alexander's translations, made over decades, and culled from "The Exeter Book" and other handwritten manuscripts that somehow survived the ravages of the Vikings and the Dark Ages, disclose electric worlds of fear, fighting and love, where words were committed to paper only when they really mattered. "Trouble in the heart now," wrote the anonymous author of "The Wife's Lament." "I saw the bitterness, the bound mind / of my matched man, mourning-browed / mirk in his mood, murder in his thoughts." Seamus Heaney, for example, has taken much from this heritage.
"House of Mist" by Maria Luisa Bombal (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
"Those for whom fear has an attraction; those who are interested in the mysterious life people live in their dreams during sleep; those who believe the dead are not really dead; those who are afraid of the fog and of their own hearts . . . they will perhaps enjoy going back to the early days of this century and entering into the strange house of mist that a young woman, very much like all other women, built for herself at the southern end of South America." So begins this hypnotic and otherworldly novel, written in English by Bombal, who was reworking texts that had been published earlier in Spanish. Bombal, born in Chile, came to know William Faulkner and had been encouraged to write by Pablo Neruda, but the mingling of fantasy and event that she achieves here feels both original and true, as she tells the story of an unhappy marriage and a mind's attempts to escape it. "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre" are both recalled, although the style isn't gothic, but mesmerizingly clear. The jacket of this new edition reworks George Salter's original cover art from 1948 -- appropriately haunting and dream-like.
Richard Rayner's "Paperback Writers" column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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