book beginnings on Friday: Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

book beginnings

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Guess what brought me to this one. It’s been a while since I read The Sun Also Rises (first discovered in Mrs. Smith’s English class in high school, which began my Hemingway admiration). I wonder if I’ll find time for a reread…

everybody behaves badly

I think these opening lines set the scene nicely – or the atmosphere of Hemingway’s life and fame, if you will.

In March 1934, Vanity Fair ran a mischievous editorial: a page of Ernest Hemingway paper dolls, featuring cutouts of various famous Hemingway personas. On display: Hemingway as a toreador, clinging to a severed bull’s head; Hemingway as a brooding, café-dwelling writer (four wine bottles adorn his table, and a waiter is seen toting three more in his direction); Hemingway as a bloodied war veteran.

I wonder how much that page of paper dolls would be worth now!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Coyote America: A Natural & Supernatural History by Dan Flores

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Coyotes seem to make consistently interesting reading – for me at least – whether Native American mythology or the natural history that is handled here.

coyote america

I thought I’d share one of the fascinating tidbits I learned. Coyotes interbreed quite avidly with red wolves in the southern U.S.; not so the gray wolves of the West.

Mech also points out that killing coyotes, not mating with them, is intrinsic to gray wolf behavior. Julie Young of the Predator Research Facility even told me that in experiments there, coyotes inseminated with gray wolf sperm actually killed the puppies they bore.

They are quite clear on their preferences, it seems. That makes sense to me, considering the Trickster Coyote I knew as a child from books like Coyote &. Stay tuned…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

A Distant Heartbeat: A War, a Disappearance, and a Family’s Secrets by Eunice Lipton

An inquisitive memoir investigates the author’s uncle, who was killed in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

distant heartbeat

Eunice Lipton grew up with an awareness of her uncle Dave that was specific and conflicted in emotional tone, and vague in points of fact. She knew he’d been in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and killed in action when he was 22. His brother Phil says, “Dave died for something. He was somebody.” His brother Louis, the author’s father, says he died for nothing. The author’s mother says he was the nicest man she ever knew. A Distant Heartbeat asks: Who was Dave Lipton? Why did this respectful son lie, tell his parents he would be working at a hotel in the Catskills, and then go to Spain? What does his story have to offer history?

Dave Lipton (formerly Lifshitz) was a Latvian Jewish immigrant, immersed in leftist youth politics in 1930s New York City. Surrounded by peers whose convictions mirrored his, Dave was one of very few to join that foreign war. His niece, born after his death, grew up with only scraps of his life and death: the repeated refrains of family members–died for nothing, died for something–and a few photos discovered in her childhood. She speaks to surviving veterans and friends of Dave, travels to an International Brigades reunion in Spain, studies letters and archival photographs. She finds more questions: What is the nature and cause of familial betrayal? Who was Dave’s mystery companion? In the end, Lipton’s research and musings offer only fleeting conclusions about family and principles, in a precise, elegiac journey through history, family tensions and human drama.


This review originally ran in the April 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 photographs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

This is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Please pardon the double-teaser. I couldn’t choose.

First and more complicatedly, Lepore quotes her subject, Joe Gould, in a letter to Ezra Pound in 1930. Gould is known (among other things) for being supposedly at work on a massive “Oral History of Our Time.” The parenthetical is hers.

joe gould's teeth

“Of course, I am a book-reviewer not a critic. That, I fear, is a distinction. It seems marvelous how many critics there are. And the blathering pother they make… Here is something cheerful to think about. To some extent the radio will supersede printing. That is good. There will be fewer books.” (The Oral History, he once explained, would include a discussion of this transformation: “I intend to write a series of chapters on the various means of communication, from oxcarts to airplanes.”)

I really wanted to share the oxcarts-to-airplanes concept because I thought it was delightful. But of course I couldn’t help going up a bit to see the book-reviewer-vs.-critic question, too! And as a bonus: people have been predicting the death of the printed book since way before e-readers. (Spoiler: Joe Gould died in an insane asylum.)

I was also struck by Lepore’s observation, below.

It has taken me a very long time, my whole life, to learn that the asymmetry of the historical record isn’t always a consequence of people being silenced against their will. Some people don’t want to be remembered, or heard, or saved. They want to be left alone.

Compared to the tone of the first teaser I chose, this second is more sober, and sobering. It’s an interesting concept for a historian to keep in mind – for the purposes of research strategies, but possibly ethics as well.

Check out Joe Gould’s Teeth. It’s outstanding.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America by Kali Nicole Gross

In this shrewd historical study, a salacious murder trial in 1887 Philadelphia offers insights on criminal justice, violence, race and gender.

hannah mary tabbs

When Kali Nicole Gross (Colored Amazons) came across the case of an unusual 1887 Philadelphia murder, she found a story with many layers. In Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America, she explores the intricacies of that case and its implications on criminal justice, a culture of violence and conceptions of race and gender.

Hannah Mary Tabbs was an unusual post-Reconstruction black woman–she unabashedly pursued sex outside of marriage and used violence and physical threats to make a reputation for herself in her black community in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. In the white community, meanwhile, she upheld the idea of womanly virtue and subservience to her white employers. Gross argues that this manipulative, variable representation of herself allowed Tabbs to almost get away with a serious crime. Tabbs had a lover whose headless, limbless torso turned up on the edge of a pond outside of town. The man convicted for that murder was, Gross contends, a patsy. The skin tones of the various players in this love triangle appear to have played as large a role as their guilt or innocence.

In prose that demonstrates careful research and offers a realistic reconstruction of the crime, Gross comments on social standards for morality and relationships between races and genders. The case of the disembodied torso is not only a sensational piece of true crime, but an opportunity to reflect on these continuing complexities.


This review originally ran in the February 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 assumptions.

Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann, trans. by Carol Brown Janeway

This poetic contemplation in translation illuminates an uneasy creative community of artists and writers gathered one summer as fascism and Nazism are growing in Europe.

ostend

Volker Weidermann’s Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark is a glimmering work of language and an insightful tribute to literary friendship in a singular historical moment.

Stefan Zweig was a successful and popular Austrian writer; Joseph Roth was less successful but also gifted, a tortured, heavy-drinking writer whom Zweig called his “literary conscience.” When war loomed in the summer of 1936, Zweig returned to the Belgian seaside town of Ostend, where he had spent the summer of 1914. His work no longer welcome in Germany, his home in Salzburg defiled by police and his marriage collapsed, he nonetheless joyfully embarked on new work and new love with his secretary, Lotte Altmann. And he brought along Roth, supporting him financially and in his work (support that would strain their complex, fraternal relationship throughout). The troubled Roth, too, found new and rejuvenating love with a German writer, Irmgard Keun, one of the few non-Jews in their small émigré community.

Aside from brief background and epilogue, Weidermann stays within the boundaries of the summer of 1936–the summer before the dark, in which Zweig, Roth and an assortment of “detractors… fighters… cynics… drinkers… blowhards… silent onlookers” manage for a single season to love, laugh and exercise creative genius in a world rapidly falling into war and fascism. Translated from the German into lyrical, meditative prose by Carol Brown Janeway, Ostend is a brief but scintillating portrayal of this season, its spirit and a set of remarkable characters.


This review originally ran in the February 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 little schnapps glasses.

The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by Ji Xianlin, trans. by Chenxing Jiang

This memoir by a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution poignantly sheds light on an under-examined period in history.

cowshed

Ji Xianlin was one of many Chinese intellectuals held in makeshift prisons, called cowsheds, on university campuses during China’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for 10 years. He was mocked, humiliated, beaten and starved. He wrote about these experiences only reluctantly, observing late in life that none of his fellows had done so and that younger Chinese need to know their history in order to learn from it. In 1998, he released his memoir, now translated into English for the first time as The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Ji narrates his years of torment compellingly, in remarkably fair-minded fashion. He claims that his work is not literary, but it is adorned with lovely metaphors: he compares his torture to Indian and Chinese concepts of hell, “a veritable pagoda of horrors,” and makes reference to the steep path to Mount Tai, one of five Taoist sacred mountains.

Ji’s story is painfully moving and beautifully related, elevated by his preface and journalist Zha Jianying’s introduction, and his appendix, an abbreviated memoir of Ji’s whole life that puts the bulk of The Cowshed into perspective. He ponders the question of human nature as basically good or bad, and illuminates Chinese culture with sensitivity and humor; for example, “We Chinese intellectuals are descended from a tradition of scholars who would rather be killed than humiliated.” Until his death in Beijing in 2009, the wise older man who wrote this book remained a patriot who wanted the best for China and who appreciated that he saw the Cultural Revolution so intimately, if only so that he could bear witness.


This review originally ran in the February 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cornmeal cakes.
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