Here are three books I’ve recently enjoyed. I’ll cover a couple more next week as well.
The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda
Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation’s greatest political humiliation — the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon’s CIA) in September 1973 — and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references — we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven — that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.
Randall Fuller, a professor at Drury University, has reconstructed our celebrated 19th Century American literary scene around a single organizing element: the Civil War, which reverberated in sometimes unexpected ways through the careers of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, Ambrose Bierce and Edward Everett Hale. Emerson welcomed the conflagration — his convictions against slavery lead him to a surprising (and, for me, disappointing) attitude of stark militarism — while Hawthorne had a sharper sense for the tragedy of war and lost his direction as a writer amidst the madness. Many writers saw opportunity in the war. Herman Melville, grasping to recover the literary reputation he lost with the commercial failure of Moby Dick, expected his war poetry to bring him new success; instead, ironically, success passed his Battle-Pieces by and landed on Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps. Fuller is at his best when writing about the works themselves, and is particularly good on Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson. But From Battlefields Rising has one big flaw: how can it call itself a history of American literature during the Civil War when it completely ignores the literature of the South? This is really a book about the Concord, Massachusetts literary scene and its various northern offshoots (everybody, it seems, was published by the Atlantic Monthly). I can’t be the only reader who wonders what the intellectuals of the Southern states were reading and writing and thinking about during these years too (I bet they weren’t reading the Atlantic Monthly), and the reference to “American literature” in the book’s subtitle should justify itself with a wider scope. If Fuller ever stretches his knowledge to cover the broader national literary sensibility in a future volume, I’ll be thrilled to read it.
Like Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation by Kurt Vonnegut, Lee Stringer and Ross Klavan
Lee: For me, the reason [I write] is it’s the first thing I completely chose to do on my own: tried on my own, made up myself, and kind of found that I could do all right at it. That’s almost ninety-percent of [why I write]. I guess there’s ten percent in the fact that I find that it’s very good for me. So that leaves maybe half a percent where I hope it’ll be good for your guys.
Kurt: People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover that they are treating their own neuroses. And I have said that practicing any art — be it painting, music, dance, literature or whatever — is not a way to make money or become famous. It’s a way to make your soul grow.
Kurt Vonnegut (all his humble disclaimers aside) was able to make a lot of money writing, and it made him famous too, even if most of the rest of us have seen more negligible rewards. Like Shaking Hands With God is a neat little book that captures a 1998 bookstore dialogue featuring Vonnegut and a scrappy New York City writer and one-time Street News editor named Lee Stringer. The slim volume amounts to a tasty after-dinner mint to follow the career of the late American satirist, as well as an introduction to the unusual work of Lee Stringer, a writer Vonnegut was clearly eager to promote.