I’ll be writing about some good new books I’ve been checking out over the next few weeks. Let’s get started:
A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg
This novella is made up of vignettes, illustrated with vivid photos of a suburban milieu and arranged in the form of a guide to some form of exotic wildlife. Which, after all, modern suburban existence actually is, and so Hallberg’s quirky and artistically fragmented narrative makes perfect sense. From page to page, we drop into the thoughtstreams of various members of two families from Long Island, each page serving as the glossary definition of a term like “Angst”, “Divorce”, “Heirloom”. There is an appealing philosophical sweetness underlying the glancing surfaces, as in the “Love” entry where it is pointed out that love is actually not, despite popular misconception, a rare commodity in modern families.
My only complaint is that Hallberg sometimes breaks out of the “field guide” format, thereby mixing the metaphor (as when, for example, one glossary definition parodies the book of Genesis, which works fine except that field guides don’t talk like that). But this is a very minor complaint about an unusual and original book, a book about regular people.
If you buy this book as a Christmas present for everybody it reminds you of, you’ll be buying a lot of copies, and why shouldn’t you?
Baseball Haiku: The Best Haiku Ever Written About The Game by Cor Van Den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura
Cor Van Den Heuvel is a haiku expert (as well as an expert on American and Beat poetry) and I’ve enjoyed performing with him at several New York City readings. His latest book, Baseball Haiku tells the surprising story of a famous Haiku poet named Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) who became fascinated with American baseball and began writing the first baseball haiku. Strangely, this was before baseball was well known in Japan, and in fact Shiki’s haiku about baseball helped to inspire Japan’s fascination with the sport. Here are three of Shiki’s haiku:
the young grass
kids get together
to hit a ball
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze
like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball
The story doesn’t end there; baseball haiku was picked up in America by Jack Kerouac, who is represented by two poems in this volume. Many American haiku poets are introduced here, along with the older and newer Japanese masters. Here are three haiku by Cor Van Den Heuvel:
first warm day
fitting my fingers into the mitt
pounding the pocket
spread out on the bed
conference on the mound
the pitcher looks down
at the ball in his hand
The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus
Greil Marcus, once a regular rock critic, has written several successful books that tie together odd cultural topics and specific moments in the history of rock music. I’ve been most impressed by his Invisible Republic, a meditation upon Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” and on the ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, who inspired Dylan’s recordings.
The Shape of Things To Come seems to follow closely upon the Bob Dylan/Harry Smith volume with a specific focus on the American voice as manifested by its prophets: John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Allen Ginsberg. Marcus also names David Lynch, Philip Roth and David Thomas of the punk band Pere Ubu as American prophets, which certainly adds up to a strange combination.
I found the “theory” side of this book too thorny to penetrate, but as soon as I dove into the individual chapters I found plenty of edgy and original ideas. A large fraction of the book is devoted to David Lynch’s serial masterpiece Twin Peaks, which Marcus has obviously studied with the attention of a museum curator examining a Van Gogh. I agree with Marcus that Twin Peaks should be studied as three primary sources: the TV series (up until the death of “Bob” in the second season, at which point it is no longer necessary to watch), the underappreciated film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Jennifer Lynch’s book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. I love Marcus’s refusal to be embarrassed as he goes completely overboard for several chapters with enthusiasm for David Lynch and Twin Peaks, and in fact he could have written three more chapters on the subject and I would have kept on reading them, because his observations are lively and smart.
The rest of the book doesn’t work as well for me, but maybe that’s just because I’m not in the mood right now to read about prophets (whose messages, after all, are written on the subway walls). I’m not sure I get the whole “voice of the prophet in the wilderness” concept, but I’m also not sure if that matters. If any of the specific subjects covered in this book appeal to you, you are likely to find good reading in The Shape of Things To Come.