What I’m Reading: Writer Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is one of our most deeply human writers. His work on poverty in America, on crime, punishment and incarceration, and most recently on the vast and damning implications of Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 presidential election, reminds us that the personal is political, and vice versa. The House of Twenty-Thousand Books is perhaps his own most deeply personal work. It’s a gorgeous weave of memoir, family history, intellectual history and throughout, a tribute to the resilience and intellect of his grandfather, Chimen Abramsky. “Over the decades,” Abramsky writes, “Chimen had become so addicted to the printed page, to the texture of his books, to the feel of old manuscripts, and to the material contained within his written correspondence, that he ended up surrounding himself with a wall of words.”

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At the time of his death, Chimen Abramsky owned remarkable holdings in both socialist writing and Judaica. Of the books of Judaica, “Chimen’s colleague Mark Geller, in internal correspondence with the university’s provost, wrote that they made up “probably the best Jewish History library in Europe.” This was on the occasion of University College London purchasing 7,000 items from him in the 1980s.

The book deals with the many consolations and implications of living with that wall of words. We see titanic figures like Isaiah Berlin and Eric Hobshawn visiting, but there’s a well-calibrated balance here between the names and impact of the greats on Chimen’s life and the lasting impact of events like his break with his father, a deeply respected rabbi who did time in a Siberian labor camp for religious proselytizing. Also critical was his embrace and then rejection of communist politics, among other personal and intellectual course changes. “For Chimen, Maimonides was the lodestar, one of the great philosophers out of whose ideas modernity could emerge,” Abramsky writes in one of numerous passages tracing his grandfather’s intellectual development. It’s a single brushstroke in a remarkable portrait, one that reminds us that even formidable minds require wellsprings to which they return in difficult times. And for all the admiration Abramsky feels for his grandfather, it’s a loving book but not hagiographic; for instance, we learn that “Chimen himself was not a particularly good storyteller – he frequently gave away the punch line of humorous anecdotes too early or, with more serious stories, got bogged down in too many details.” The organization of his great library is haphazard at best (see the wonderful anecdote from one of Sasha Abramsky’s cousins’ youth about their grandfather tunneling through the seemingly uncharted mass of stuff to a destination the rest of them never saw).

It was during the week before the election that Sasha Abramsky answered my two questions. I read a cautious optimism in his responses, but there was also the sense of a serious reckoning with the possible dark days to come if the election played out differently than expected. His grandfather’s books “provided protection from the madness of the world outside – or, at the very least, a road map for navigating the chaos.” I’d suggest that’s what the younger Abramsky is working at now, for himself and the rest of us – the creation of a road map for navigating the chaos to come. He can’t author a truly comprehensive map all by his lonesome, but his work describes certain precincts, diagnoses their ills and predicts their fates with real insight and empathy. I haven’t spoken with him since November 8, but I’ll be keeping tabs on his work. We need it now more than ever.

Here’s what he was reading as of late October. I can only imagine recent events have added to the list:

Regarding my reading habits, I tend to read fairly voraciously across a range of genres — and I generally have several books going simultaneously.

I’m in the process of writing a book about what we fear and why, and how it impacts our political choices, as well as many other aspects of our daily lives. To that end, I have been reading many books by anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and psychologists about how individuals and cultures choose what sorts of things to really fear, and to what purpose. I have also been reading many books and academic papers by neuroscientists about different parts of the brain, and different chemical and nervous system responses to threats and to fear.

As for more general-interest reading, I spent much of the past week reading Eduardo Galleano’s collection of essays “We Say No,” about the moral imperatives of understanding social and historical inequities and injustices, and about the ways individuals can resist unjust systems.

As a completely random book, I picked up on a dollar stall a collection of essays, titled “Letters to the Valley,” about farming and connection to the land, by a writer and California farmer named David Mas Masumoto. It is delightfully diverting, and is helping me to take my mind off of the extraordinarily nerve-wracking election — as you may have seen, I have spent much of the last year writing for the Nation (in the US), Haaretz (in Israel) and the New Statesman (in the UK) about the perils of Trump-ism and what I see as the emergence of a form of politics with distinct strains of fascism. As I’m writing and thinking so much about that, it’s nice every so often to step away from the fray and read about something totally different.

My daughter has been reading many of the novels (sci-fi and other) by Octavia Butler. She asked me if I would read some, so I am now dipping into some Butler novels.

Other books that I have read in the last few months include the Karl Ove Knausgaard series “My Struggle,” the Julian Barnes book, about Shostakovich, titled “The Noise of Time;” and several Bohumil Hrabal novels, including “Too Loud a Solitude.” I also read Adam Hoshchild’s book  on the Spanish Civil War, “Spain in Our Hearts,” a book on the Mitford sisters, “The Six,” by Laura Thompson, and Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history book “Chernobyl.”

On my list of books to soon read: volumes 4-6 of Churchill’s history of World War Two; Luc Sante’s The Other Paris; Andrew Cooper’s book “The Fall of Heaven” on the last days of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran; and Edward Rutherford’s “New York: The Novel.”

I hope this answers both what I’m reading and why: As you can see, I tend to read eclectically, seeking to fulfill whatever intellectual or cultural itch has my attention at any given moment. I read to learn, but also to relax; to explore new worlds, and to introduce myself to places and people who, for various reasons, intrigue me…

As for what I’m currently working on: many articles on politics and on social justice themes, for the Nation and other magazines; and, as I mentioned earlier, a book, to be published in the fall of 2017 by Nation Books, on how our understanding of fear shapes so many of the fundamental decisions we make in life.

What I’m Reading: Writer Paul Russell

Recently I mentioned Paul Russell’s novel Immaculate Blue as a book a lot of readers might have overlooked. That wasn’t a judgment I reached on the basis of sales figures, for instance – I’m not privy to that information – but the fact that the book didn’t show up in reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and so forth, the remaining big  (if somewhat diminished) outlets for book coverage.

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  • Photo of Paul Russell by Tuan Ching, via paulrussellwriter.com

The Salt Point made it into those Reviews, and I’d have imagined some value to continuity in revisiting the original review and the two books in tandem. Then again, I don’t get paid to run the book section of a major publication, to commission reviews, and so forth. All I know is that picking up with the four friends from The Salt Point strikes me as worthwhile in the same way it’s worthwhile to follow the results of Jay McInerney’s recently completed trilogy (or maybe there’s more to come – I’ve got no advance intel on that question). And understand, I liked the McInerney novels, flaws and all. I just don’t think Russell’s work catching up with past characters has to get the short shrift. It suggests to me something like Mark Merlis’s aside that his work has been studied in “the ghetto of the gay literature survey.”

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One outcome of that marginalization is that we get a writer like Russell, who’s been productive for years now, and who has received broader-based attention at times (see The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov), observing that, when reading neglected novels by gay writers from the 40s and 50s, he “feel[s] a kinship with these forgotten writers.” I don’t want to make too much of what was maybe an offhand comment, but it’s easy to see why Russell might feel like his work is less remarked upon than it deserves to be.

All that said, a look at what Paul Russell has been reading lately is a look at the intellectual life of a working writer. He teaches full-time at Vassar, and that places certain demands on his reading time. As you’ll see, though, he turns that to his advantage, uses it to feed his interests, and with any luck, finds a spark within his reading life to keep alive the writing he has to put aside during the semester. And while he suggested I might want to cut, rearrange, or otherwise shape his responses, they’re really worth reading in their entirety. Take it away, Paul Russell:

I can’t really answer the first question without also answering the second.  I’m midway through a semester of teaching, so much of what I’m reading these days is dictated by what I’m doing in the classroom.  I’m one of those highly inefficient teachers who insists on rereading everything before teaching it.  Thus, for this week I’ve reread Patricia Highsmith’s smart and lively 1952 lesbian novel The Price of Salt; three glittering, funny, heartbreaking stories by Katherine Mansfield—”Prelude,” “The Garden Party,” and “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”—and, for my James Joyce seminar, the gorgeous “Nausicaa” chapter from Ulysses.  Fortunately, I only teach books I like, so rereading them is almost  always a pleasure. 

 

I’m also doing an independent reading project this semester with a student on “Sex, Identity, and the Literature of AIDS.” We’re sort of inventing the reading list as we go along, and for some reason it’s turned into a mini-seminar on Derek Jarman:  his extraordinary final film Blue, made after he was stricken with AIDS-related blindness, a volume of his writing about the stark, magical garden he built by the sea at Dungeness, in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, and one of his several volumes of memoir, At Your Own Risk.  We admitted to each other in out meeting yesterday that we both have a kind of crush on Jarman.  His prose is so luminous, compassionate, transgressive, human… 

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In addition to regular schoolwork I’m pursuing two other reading projects:  one involves neglected gay novels from the 1940s and 50s (in part as preparation for a course I’m teaching in the spring).  I know there’s lots of contemporary work I should be reading, but I feel a kinship with these forgotten writers.  My latest foray has been Scotland’s Burning (1953), Nathaniel Burt‘s wistful, homoerotic, beautifully written tale set in a boys’ school in the American south—a little reminiscent of A Separate Peace or The Folded Leaf in its not-quite-closeted longings. Not a great novel, but an elegant, oddly satisfying piece of work.  Some of my great discoveries among these writers have been Fritz Peters (Finistere, Boyhood with Gurdjieff), Lonnie Coleman (Sam; The Southern Lady; The Golden Vanity, Mark), Harlan Cozad McIntosh (This Finer Shadow) and Charles Jackson (The Fall of Valor). 

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 – Photo via Valancourt Books

Finally, for the last several months a colleague and I have been exploring New Testament canon formation, reading through all the many gospels and epistles and revelations and other documents that never made it into the  New Testament proper (though some, like The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas were included in certain early codices).  We’ve also made our way through the gnostic texts from the Nag Hammadi library (standouts include The Secret Book of John and Thunder, The Perfect Wisdom), as well as Tertullian’s hilarious takedown of the gnostics in his Against the Valentinians.  My friend and I arrive at a local diner every Sunday morning loaded down with Bibles and other pedantic paraphernalia, and sit for three hours poring over arcana, no doubt making a spectacle of ourselves to the curious, but supernaturally well-tended to by our waitress who, it turns out in a weird bit of serendipity, is the niece of Maurice Sendak!  Why are we doing this? It all started when we realized neither of us knew anything about the ancient monophysite churches.  Well now we know, and so much more!

 

And all this while my new novel, The Two Angels Came to Sodom, which I’m 300 pages into, is on hold as I carefully try to keep that fragile egg warm and incubating, hoping against hope that when I finish teaching and return to the hatchery in June I won’t find it has expired in the meantime (something that has happened before!).  

What I’m Reading This Fall

Here’s what I’m either already reading or looking forward to, square in the midst of fall.

Alexander Maksik, Shelter in Place

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Maksik’s third novel turns back toward what’s at least peripherally more personal ground. His debut, You Deserve Nothing, dealt with a situation not unlike one he’d experienced while teaching in France. His sophomore effort, A Marker to Measure Drift, looked further afield, following the hardships of a young female refugee in the Greek isles. Shelter in Place finds a young man in the Pacific Northwest, just getting his start in the world. Any plans he had are derailed by an unexpected act of violence. Knowing Maksik, there’s little chance this takes a sensational turn, and much greater likelihood we get a sophisticated character study.

Loren Eiseley, Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos

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Loren Eiseley’s published work only spans a little over two decades, from 1957’s The Immense Journey to 1979’s Darwin and The Mysterious Mister X. His work was often philosophical in nature, and he devoted considerable attention to the natural world and matters of cosmology. Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos is a two-volume box set from Library of America, an acknowledgement of the sophistication and significance of Eiseley’s ideas at a time when we’re grappling with the seriousness of our environmental degradation.

Albert Murray, Collected Essays and Memoirs

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Maybe the most gratifying news of the season is Library of America’s decision to publish an omnibus edition of Albert Murray’s nonfiction under the title Collected Essays and Memoirs. Murray focused much of his attention as a memoirist and novelist on the blues, an ur-American form and one few writers can begin to address with Murray’s depth and profundity. Murray was a friend and confidant of the great Ralph Ellison, and this collection provides ample evidence why.

Nir Baram, Good People and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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Baram’s novel is a moody, stylish thriller set on the eve of World War II in Berlin and Leningrad. It’s the first of Israeli writer Baram’s books to appear in English, though A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank is due next April. Might just pair nicely with Amor Towles’s second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. Towles gives us Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across from the Kremlin in 1922. You may recall Towles as the author of the stylish Rules of Civility. And if the hotel setting of Towles’s novel gets you, look into Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel.

Mena Calthorpe, The Dyehouse and Living by Henry Green

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The Dyehouse is one of Calthorpe’s three books, the other two of which (The Defectors and Plain of Ala) are out of print. It’s set in postwar Australia, and that means the setting – a textile factory floor – is at a threshold moment, when technology threatens unprecedented change for the people who depend on manufacturing for a livelihood. Class and gender issues are at issue here, but that puts a stiff gloss on a radically human piece of work. Read it with Henry Green’s Living for a double dose (due March 2017 from NYRB Classics). Also worth noting: The Dyehouse is the 100th entry in the Text Classics series.

  • John McIntyre

Five Books You Might Have Missed in 2015

One of the unfortunate realities of literary marketing is that so many books, once they pass their initial window of newness, get swept offstage and forgotten. Even with music this is unfair, and it takes what, 45 minutes to listen to an album? Am I betraying something significant about my worldview by thinking in terms of albums rather than songs? The point is, it takes time to read a book. With the sheer volume of new releases out each week, no reader makes it through more than a handful before another batch is acclaimed as must reads. This isn’t even me saying the diagnosis of must read is necessarily wrong, just that there’s necessarily something lost in the churn from one batch of new books to the next. So, here are five books worth buying and reading from 2015 that I either didn’t get a chance to read or write about when they were brand new.

JD by Mark Merlis

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  • Image via University of Wisconsin Press

The thing about Mark Merlis is, he’s a really good writer. Once upon a time, Walter Kirn wrote an essay in praise of the good novel (as opposed to great, if I remember right, if the essay ever really existed – can’t seem to prove it did). JD is a good novel, every bit good enough that you’ll look forward to getting back to it when you have time each day. What we have is this: a novelist-cum-scholar, Jonathan Ascher has died, and years later, a scholar writes to his widow, asking to work with his papers. His widow, Martha, is uneasy with the request, and finally digs into her late husband’s papers, his journals in particular, to see if she’s being unreasonable.

It all sounds like a sort of low-stakes matter, but Merlis has complete command of the voices here. The whole thing unfolds across Martha’s weeks/months of sizing up and remembering her life with Jonathan, and the pseudo-private entries Jonathan made in his journals. Pseudo-private because she suspects he’d always wanted them to be read and studied. What’s betrayal, what’s honesty – it’s all in play here, and it’s to his credit that there’s never a moment when it feels like the conclusion that emerges really belongs to Merlis rather than someone in the novel. There’s a touching moment, to me at least, when the scholar who got in touch with Martha talks about “coming out as second rate.” Merlis won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 1995, among other prizes, and also managed a career working on health care policy, including the creation of the Ryan White Act. If I had to narrow this list down to one book, JD would be the one, and the other four are very good.

Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf by Gerald Murnane

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  • Image via Text Publishing

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m good with that, actually, but it’s nice to see Gerald Murnane’s name mentioned once a year in American publications handicapping who might get the prize. Something for the Pain’s abiding concern is Murnane’s lifelong devotion to horse racing, but from the outset it’s clear that he’s long since accepted that what happens on the track means as much to him personally, as part of his mythos, as it does on an emerging, day-to-day basis. His car’s radio no longer picks up all the races, and the newspaper coverage is condensed. He doesn’t mention it – the event occurred after his memoir’s publication – but Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in November of 2015. Murnane doesn’t seem likely to lament the change. It’s the horses that capture his imagination, the silks they and their riders wear and the drama of the uncertainty as they head into the final turn. Well, that and the exaggerated tales from trainers, punters and the like. If there’s a reason I’m let down that Dylan got the Nobel, it’s that Murnane would’ve suddenly had a much larger readership if he’d won.

Immaculate Blue by Paul Russell

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  • Image via Paul Russell/Cleis Press

Paul Russell wrote a pair of novels centered on the same four friends, twenty-five years apart. That in itself is enough to justify your interest. It also sort of means I’m recommending the first book, The Salt Point, as well, even though he does an admirable job of filling in the blanks in Immaculate Blue, without making it awkwardly apparent that he’s doing so. In fact, three of the four – Anatole, Lydia and the estranged Chris – are back together for Anatole’s wedding. They’re much different after twenty-five years, naturally – both more and less serious, which is to say their ideas of what matters now correspond to the larger number of people they’re committed to and responsible for. Lydia has a husband and son. Anatole is set to marry Rafa and they’ve discussed kids by various channels. Chris, well, he’s dealt with matters of life and death up close, in Iraq and more recently Nigeria. Leigh, “Our Boy of the Mall” as they refer to him in The Salt Point, is forty-four now and also in a committed relationship. Their inevitable changes are no less notable than those Russell himself has undergone, to judge by the two books. The Salt Point is brooding and poetic, truly gorgeous line by line, and the ending is almost hermetic in its darkness. Immaculate Blue refutes a lot of that brooding. It’s not without its introspective, reflective moments, but it also acknowledges that there’s life after what seem to be signal moments, big decisions that later aren’t so big for the immediate break as much as the options they afford us afterward.

Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Barry Rego

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  • Image via Rebecca Barry Rego/Voyageur Press

I don’t collect books as seriously as I’d like. It’s an expensive hobby and I lack the expertise to avoid pissing away large sums of money. What I do appreciate, admire, choose the word you like, is the romance of that pursuit. In truth I’d own a bookstore, in another time, place, life. Rebecca Barry Rego writes here about people bold and knowing enough to properly collect books and own bookstores in the here and now, and how they came by some of their most prized quarry. I should add she’s one of my most favorite editors. Without her Fine Books & Collections wouldn’t be nearly the magazine it is.

In Rare Books Uncovered, she writes, “For better or worse, serendipity plays a significant role in antiquarian book collecting and bookselling.” Absolutely, and I won’t spoil a single one of the serendipitous moments she writes about in the book. I’d say we should all be so lucky, but if we were, stories like these wouldn’t mean nearly as much. Highly recommended.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell

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  • Image via Vintage Books

Know how many writers like David Shields we have in America? One, I’m going to say, just the one. He’s intelligent and endlessly curious, but if you can’t say that about a writer, that writer’s just painting by numbers. What takes Shields a step beyond, or many steps at times, is that he turns that curiosity on himself, his own thought processes, and he seemingly refuses to offer himself the comfortable way forward in those moments. About a dozen years ago, I sent him some emails about his book Black Planet, which deals with race and a season with the NBA’s then Seattle Supersonics. Leaving aside the fact that allowing the Sonics to move was a gross miscarriage of justice, I disagreed with him completely on a number of things. I said so (I was younger and more likely to bother with these disagreements then), and what happened? He wrote back, granted that I might be right but he had his reasons for the conclusions he reached, and then we discussed the Sonics’ summer league games. We both watch a lot of basketball, is the other takeaway there.

This is the kind of writer who should get the Macarthur Genius Grant. Can you imagine how he’d torment himself, with 600 or so grand and a bunch of time to write and think? Sign me up to read the results. I Think You’re Totally Wrong is unlike anything else in recent American letters. He goes off for a weekend with a former student, Caleb Powell, who’s also a writer, and they go back and forth on a  variety of topics. The resulting book is funny and irritating as hell and really smart. I went away feeling really fond of them both but also glad they didn’t invite me on their weekend trip. James Franco’s made a movie of it, a metafictional extension of the premise that apparently includes James Franco, who should not ever get the Macarthur Genius Grant under any circumstances. And you know what? Powell holds his own, at least in the book. We should hear a lot more from him in the future. Just give him all the access and exposure James Franco gets. The world will be a more exciting place.

– John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Photographer JA Mortram

For the 100th Good Reading Copy post, it’s time to look in a new direction. For three years now, the site has dealt with what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. That’s been rewarding, but it’s only half of the conversation I’d like to have. A few years back, Anita Brookner mentioned in an interview that Piers Paul Read’s novel The Misognyist was the book that had most impressed her in recent years. A couple of weeks ago, Helen Garner told me that Joan London’s novel The Golden Age was something special, and that she hoped people didn’t overlook it. So, I’m adding regular entries devoted to what certain makers, as Robert Phelps would’ve called them, ones I admire, are reading and why. That will include writers, but also photographers, musicians, people in publishing, chefs – anyone whose work has caught my eye and who has the time and inclination to share. Up first: the photographer JA Mortram.

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At the start of his very short story, “Harbor Town,” Yasunari Kawabata writes, “This harbor town is an interesting one.” He then offers a brief sketch of a man’s loneliness and a fleeting connection to geisha he finds there. Somehow he hasn’t taken hold in the world, hasn’t made the connections he’d have liked. What’s missing for him doesn’t trouble the world at large, though, and so there’s an added tang to his isolation. What Kawabata includes is striking, but what’s left off the page has an even more lasting pull. There’s no subsequent expansion on “Harbor Town.” It’s not part of a series of stories or a sketch for a novel, as we might read “Gleanings from Snow Country.” Great as he was, there’s a nagging question of what Kawabata knew of men like the one in “Harbor Town,” beyond their loneliness and poignant moments like the one in the story, what else he might’ve revealed by allowing a few more lines of dialogue, another turn or two onstage.

This is not a complaint that applies to the photographer JA Mortram. He’s said in the past that he’s committed to photographing people who don’t have a voice. More often than not, that means he makes an ongoing commitment to the people he photographs, not only engaging with them over the course of multiple sessions, but at times offering help with everyday matters as well. If that seems to suggest an investment beyond the visual aspects of his work, it’s because he does.

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  • Photo by JA Mortram

He told Darlene Hildebrandt of Digital Photography School that a significant part of what he’s doing is to “be nice, be attentive, give a damn, listen.” Indeed, the people Mortram is working with are his neighbors, and his work affords them the same dignity they’ve offered him by inviting him into their homes, into their lives.

When I asked what he’d been reading, he told me, “Lately it’s pretty much all been photography books,” and I knew that meant he’d been working madly – he’s as curious and engaged as anyone I know. He’s got good taste, too – ask him about Harry Crews. The upshot here is that a list of photography books that hold JA Mortram’s attention is a list of photography books that should be on your shelves. And so, from the man himself:

“Cool, a list of books, here we go, these are VITAL…

Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by Don McCullin

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Family Love by Darcy Padilla

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Written in the West by Wim Wenders

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Living with the by Enemy Donna Ferrato

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  • Photo by Donna Ferrato, http://www.donnaferrato.com/

One Second of Light by Giles Duley

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The Fat Baby Eugene Richards

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Photo by Eugene Richards, http://eugenerichards.com/the-fat-baby/

…these are all go to books for truth, morality, empathy and life. Wim Wenders I go to when I want to fill my heart with joy.”

Later this year, Bluecoat Press is publishing Small Town Inertia, a collection of photos from JA Mortram’s work. You can find much more of his work – photos, video and the stories of the people whose stories he’s telling, at the links below.

– John McIntyre

More by JA Mortram:

At Vimeo

At Smalltowninertia.co.uk

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JA Mortram on Instagram

Books about food, books about wine

I’ve almost certainly made it clear that I don’t like internet lists, on balance. They’re lazy and reductive in most cases, and that’s only made worse by clicking through a dozen pages to realize how lazy and reductive a given list is. There are, of course, exceptions, and I was lucky to come across two this very week.

The first is courtesy of Robert Parker’s wonderful wine site. Neal Martin offers a list he calls, “Some of the Finest Wine Books Ever Written (…But Not by Jancis or Hugh).” These aren’t, it bears mentioning, altogether practical choices Martin makes. He readily acknowledges this. Of J.A. Garde’s Histoire de Pomerol, he writes, “It’s a book that seems to relish its tangents, narrative cul-de-sacs and ellipses, which meant that I had to read/translate it 50 or 60 times to eke out nuggets of precious information. Because they are here. You just have to search hard for it.” At times, André Simon’s Vintage-Wise “reads like the midnight shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 and though its subject matter is just as irrelevant, insofar that the paucity of 1887 Saint Julien’s impacts your daily life as much as a squall on the Dogger Bank, you feel comforted by the information that seems better to know, than not.” These descriptions make me think of an unusual and almost totally impractical book I picked up a couple of years ago called Herbs and the Earth by Henry Beston. There’s something oddly reassuring and at times genuinely engaging about a writer’s devotion to a subject of intense personal interest. Just the kind of thing to relax into as the cool months descend.

The second list appeared on the Saveur site. Russ Parsons writes about “3 Classic (and Vastly Underappreciated) Books That Changed the Way We Cook.” He includes Helen Brown’s West Coast Cookbook, which is just a fantastic choice. She was indeed a James Beard protégée of sorts, though Beard’s letters to her, collected in Love and Kisses and A Halo of Truffles, seem to regard her more as a peer/equal. That quibble aside, the list is worth a look.

– John McIntyre

Charles McGrath on John O’Hara

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Image courtesy of Library of America

Charles McGrath has been, at various times, editor of the New York Times Book Review and deputy editor at the New Yorker. More recently, he’s edited the Library of America’s edition of John O’Hara’s short fiction. McGrath is a fitting choice, given how many of O’Hara’s stories the New Yorker published, albeit before his tenure there, unless I’m mistaken. For one reason or another, O’Hara hasn’t yet enjoyed the renewed interest John Cheever did. Then again, unless I’m mistaken, the Cheever renaissance tracked pretty closely with LOA reissues of his novels, and a biography by Blake Bailey, which is always an event. Geoffrey Woolf already wrote a good biography of O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, way back in 2003. McGrath called the booksatisfying and pleasingly unconventional, and one that O’Hara would probably have hated.” There’s also a mid-’70s bio by Matthew J. Bruccoli, and while I can’t vouch for it firsthand, Bruccoli did so much exemplary work on F. Scott Fitzgerald that it’s unlikely to be a complete dud. 

Now we’ve got an interview with McGrath on the LOA site in which he calls O’Hara, “an important American writer who has been unjustly neglected.” He does acknowledge that the writer was his own worst enemy in some regards, saying of O’Hara, “his public persona was prickly and blustery, even a little obnoxious at times. He made it easy to dislike him.” Indeed, James Salter has noted that, “His publisher referred to him as the master of the perceived slight.” So, will this be a rebirth for the writer McGrath calls, “a crucial figure in the development of the American short story, with links to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, on the one hand, and on the other, to a generation of writers he influenced: Salinger, Updike, Cheever, Raymond Carver”? If nothing else, that characterization should get a few readers interested. What they find once they look closer won’t disappoint them.

– John McIntyre

John Casey on James Salter and Breece Pancake

Earlier this year, University of Virginia Press released The Art of Fiction, a bound version of three lectures James Salter gave while serving as Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for 2014. It’s an unfinished book – Salter meant to flesh out what he’d written, probably expand on some of the ideas and perhaps look in other direction, in other essays, to offer a more complete set of thoughts on the subject. It was a treat for me all the same; it explores some of Salter’s ideas and enthusiasms in depth, and I’ve never yet gotten my fill of that. The additional pleasure: a lengthy introductory essay by John Casey. In the essay, Casey is forthright and knowing. He calls Salter “a generous man, but precise in his generosity,” and later notes, of the difficulty of becoming a writer, “It takes a lot of miles to run a race.”

Casey would know. He’s put in the miles, and he’s still running. Spartina earned him the National Book Award in 1989. He revisited Dick Pierce 21 years later, for 2010’s Compass Rose. But if you’re unfamiliar with Casey and still skeptical, an ideal place to start is his essay on Breece D’J Pancake. It’s naturally a sort of tribute and a sort of appraisal, but more meaningfully, it’s a talented writer at the height of his powers, attempting to make sense of the loss of an immensely gifted protege. Casey acknowledges that theirs was an unconventional relationship in this regard:

He was about to turn twenty-seven when he died; I was forty. But half the time he treated me (and I treated him) as if I were his kid brother. The other half of the time he treated me like a senior officer in some ancient army of his imagination. I knew a few things, had some rank, but he felt surely that I needed some looking after. There was more to it than that of course. More than these cartoon panels can show, he was a powerful, restless friend.

The essay in full is here, on Casey’s site. Pancake’s lone book of stories is here. Read it, then read the others, then pick up some books.

– John McIntyre

Some Small, Good Things

There’s a great Raymond Carver story called “A Small, Good Thing.” The stakes in it feel a lot higher than the small, good things I’m about to mention, but these made it a good week on some level all the same.

1) John Andrew Fredrick has a website. This goes firmly in the Long Overdue column. Hard to believe there wasn’t more of a web presence for a man with several novels and nearly two dozen albums to his credit. You can check out his artwork as well. And if that’s not enough, I interviewed him for the LA Review of Books earlier this year.

2) Dwight Garner writes about Charles Wright in the Times, once again. This is the second time in recent months, and I’m thrilled he’s using his platform to nudge readers toward a disgracefully overlooked writer. Of course, I wrote about Wright for Brick once upon a time.

And it’s time for a long weekend. Believe me when I say, you could do worse for company than John Andrew Fredrick and Charles Wright.

– John

“True Bones” at The Poetry Foundation, on Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison died in March. I’ve written an essay called “True Bones: The Many Appetites of Jim Harrison,” about his work as a poet for The Poetry Foundation.

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It contains a chunk of the poem “Counting Birds,” which is a poem I particularly love. There are also ten of Harrison’s poems on the Poetry Foundation site.

– John