This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

June 3, 2002 — One of last year's most embarrassing slash depressing admissions made by anybody in the book biz — although not, perhaps, the most surprising — was the one made by the New York Times' "Making Books" columnist Martin Arnold, who wrote that he was looking forward to his time off over the Christmas holiday because he didn't have to read anything then. "I've read enough books this year," he declared.

Icky, no? I mean, if that's the attitude of the senior columnist covering the book beat for the most prestigious newspaper in America's publishing capital, is it any wonder that across the rest of the land these days there is an growing sense that reading is a dern chore?

This is the time of year when you may become even more aware of that attitude, because right around Memorial Day is when the notion usually heightens into a frenzy about summer "beach books" — typically, books that are promoted using various euphemisms for the word "mindless."

Now, don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that reading for "entertainment" — the most popular of those euphemisms — is a bad thing. Indeed, I think a sense of pleasure is a necessary element of anything I would consider well–written.

But do you have to be such a numbskull to be entertained? More and more, in the great age of lowest–common–denominator publishing, what they're selling every summer is something less and less idiosyncratically memorable. Can you remember last summer's big book? Can you remember any of last summer's books? They're all of such silly sameness that they blur together, until we realize that we're not being sold books, but rather a bill of goods that says now that you've got time to read, get yourself a book that's so lightweight, so devoid of any quality whatsoever of interactive thought, that your vacation will be the equivalent of a low–grade coma. Yes, run out and get that fat new Tom Clancy book and just start hitting yourself over the head with it. No need to read it. Books, it seems, are actually supposed to be thought–deadening.

Well, who knew? Except this year, even as the mainstream book biz throws itself into that perfervid sales pitch as hard as it ever has, it does seem there are a few people out there who don't know.

Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on the part of your faithful book snob, but it does seem as if there are some books of quality more visible in the mix this year. Perhaps it's a follow–up to some trends observed last fall, when readers in the new, post–9/11 world passed up lighter fare in favor of books about spirituality and politics, etc. Perhaps it's just the mini–rebellions made inevitable by the creeping crud of conglomerization taking over all aspects of the business. But whatever the reason, in this year's installment of Memorial Day book chatter, newspapers (outside of New York, at least) seemed to talk about some better literature than usual.

In the Raleigh News & Observer, for example, book editor J. Peder Zane led off his summer roundup by citing forthcoming books not by the likes of Clancy and Jackie Colllins (although they are, indeed, both at it again) but rather by J.M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Richard Russo and Haruki Murakami. (Notice not just that Zane mentioned them, but that those are the type of books typically not released during the summer.) In the Orlando Sentinel, editor Nancy Pate reminded readers about some other books that should be entertaining even though most likely well–written, such as the new Walter Mosley and the new Oscar Hijuelos.

Well, throw in some small press titles and you've got a promising summer. For example, from Cinco Puntos Press there's "Six Kinds of Sky" by Luis Alberto Urrea, a collection of beautifully written and wonderfully observed short stories covering territory from Mazatlan, Mexico to the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and including a cast of Gringo, Mexican, and Native American characters.

Another great story collection, "Cross Roads," by Karel Capek is from the tiny Catbird Press, a Connecticut publisher the specializes in translating Czech literature and has brought forth some really wonderful work overlooked by the big pubs. Catbird is concurrently publishing a biography of Capek Ivan Klima, "Karel Capek: Life and Work."

Other small press books of note:

Flotsam & Jetsam, by Aidan Higgins (Dalkey Archives, $15.95) . . . A collection of the short prose and fiction from one of the most respected Irish writers of the last fifty years.

The Violence of the Morning, by Cal Bedient (University of Georgia, $16.95) . . . Dubbed "a go–to guy in poetry" by Publishers Weekly, Bedient's second collection features startling imagery, an interesting variety of forms, and a mordant wit.

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago by Eric C. Klinenberg (University of Chicago, $27.50) . . . An investigation of why the great Chicago heat wave of 1995 was one of the deadliest in American history.

Steal Away, by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon, $25) . . . A selection of this fearless poets' best work, along with a new series of poems on incarceration.

Separation of Church and State by Philip Hamburger (Harvard, $49.95) . . . A quirky look at American history and contemporary politics that argues it wasn't the Founding Fathers or the First Amendment that separated church and state — it was the people, to endorse a level of intolerance that may ultimately be un–American.

Little Casino by Gilbert Sorrentino (Coffee House, $14.95) . . . Grounded more in images and characters from his native Brooklyn than in plot, the latest novel from the wry and lyrical innovator explores what a novel can do in a refreshing manner.

Approximately Paradise, by Don Schofield (University Press of Florida, $12.95) . . . A haunting collection of poems that focuses primarily on a haunted culture — that of Greece, considering its landscape, history and people with tender yet clear–eyed and ultimately timeless vision.

And finally, from the University Press of New England there's "Intimate Appraisals: The Social Writings of Thomas J. Cottle," a collection of essays by the eminent sociologist that covers a wide range of subjects. Basically, Cottle observes individuals' behavior in response to larger public and historic events, ranging from bussing in Boston to the O.J. Simpson trial. It's a revealing look at our present–day zeitgeist.

      As is the growing attention being paid to such books . . . I hope.

Last Week’s Column: From the Archives: SON OF POTTERMANIA As the Harry Potter movie came out on video, people lined up for the midnight release. A look back at when people did that for the book.


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