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Five books to read now.

April 8, 2010

Boy do I miss the bully pulpit I enjoyed in those halcyon days as book editor for the Sun-Sentinel.  I had the time and space to bring any — and as many — books to your attention as I wanted. But wait! I can do that here! Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

These are five new books I will probably not be able to review. All deserve to find an audience.

I’ve read them all, in whole or in part (The Complete Psalms is best take in piecemeal). Here is something for all tastes, ladies and gentleman — a thriller, a memoir of homelessness, a collection of magazine journalism, and two books of ancient poetry and spiritual wisdom.

1. I’m tempted to say anoint David Grann the best magazine writer in America, but that would be a silly thing to say. After all, I haven’t read all the magazine writers in the country (it would be an impossibility, not to mention Hell on Earth), so how would I know? Still, Grann is special. A staffer at the New Yorker, Grann broke big last year with his book The Lost City of Z, in which he solved a century-old puzzle using nothing but good journalism, and told a great adventure story from the age of exploration.

His new book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (Knopf, $26.95), is the standard reward for having written a bestseller — a collection of his magazine pieces slapped between hardcovers. While the subtitle oversells matters a bit, these pieces — ranging from the suspicious death of a Sherlock expert to the search for the giant squid to the building of New York’s water tunnels — show the reporting excellence and fluid writing style of a first-rate journalist at the peak of his powers.

2. William Peter Blatty will forever be associated with his most famous novel, The Exorcist, and the landmark movie that was made from it. But at 82, he proves with his first novel in 25 years that he has lost none of his skill at suspense, or his interest in religion. Dimiter (Tom Doherty Assts., $24.99) opens in Albania, 1973, where secret police are unable to break a suspected spy, despite all manner of torture. Only after he escapes do they realize he is Paul Dimiter, a legendary American spy and assassin.

A year later, an Arab Christian detective teams with a Jewish doctor in Jersalem to crack a series of bizarre murders (suicides?),  leading up to a twist in the final 20 pages that brings the entire book into sharp focus. Blatty, though not a great stylist, has a gift for turning stock characters into individuals and for endowing religious and spiritual questions with real suspense. Nick Owchar, at the Los Angeles Times, writes, “In the annals of demonology, William Peter Blatty falls somewhere between St. Augustine and Joss Whedon.”

3. I don’t totally trust Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets (Bloomsbury, $15), by the “celebrated homeless writer” Cadillac Man. Because this material has clearly been shaped by someone, whether Cadillac Man or someone else. Indeed, these stories are related with considerable skill and polish. Is Cadillac Man simply a natural, or was he given help we aren’t told about?

Setting these questions aside, however, Land of the Lost Souls reads with great authenticity. Cadillac Man tells his own story — how he lost a good job, his wife and children and ended up pushing a cart and collecting cans on the streets of Manhattan — as well as the stories of other homeless people he meets. This book offers insight into a part of American life and culture most people never even see. It’s a ground-level view, one that doesn’t wallow in sordidness (or avoid it), one that casts everything we think we know into a new light.

4. I always approach new translations of the Bible with enormous skepticism, especially if they are by poets, or writers who think they have new understanding of what it’s supposed to say. I mean, really, for literary quality the King James Version will never be topped, and for clarity any number of modern editions suffice (I recommend the New International Version). Usually what are presented as brilliant new translations are just clunky. That, however, is not the case with Pamela Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation (Bloomsbury, $26).

What I always do is turn to a favorite passage– say Psalm 103 — and compare the new and improved version with the KJV. The King James starts this praise song with: “Bless the Lord, o my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name.” Okay, Ms. Greenberg, whatcha got? “Be wild, O my soul, for the Source of Wonder; let all my insides praise the Holy Name.” Not crazy about “Source of Wonder,” but love “be wild,” and “let all my insides praise.” Visceral, yet poetic and spiritual. The other psalms reveal similar smart and striking  new wordings, making this a good book for the faithful and the poetry lover alike.

Finally, William Scott Wilson has been laboring down in Miami for more than 20 years, translating medieval Japanese wisdom literature, especially samurai books. His version of Yamamoto Tsenetomo’s Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai is prominently mentioned in Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring Forest Whitaker. Lately, though, Wilson is extending his expertise to Chinese literature as well.

His latest, The Unencumbered Spirit: Reflections of a Chinese Sage (Kodansha, $19.95), translates a work by a 14th century philosopher named Hung Ying-ming who steeped himself in the Three Creeds — Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Almost nothing is known about his life, but he left behind this collection of spiritual observations. An example: “The mountains are high, but the clouds are unobstructed:/ From this we awake to the chance of passing from/ existence to nonexistence.”

Kodansha does a lovely job with Wilson’s books, all of which come in a tasteful red cover. This is a must for anyone with a taste for Eastern wisdom or literature. And this book is a terrific warm-up for Wilson’s new translation, drawing on the most ancient texts of the Tao te Ching, coming in June.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    April 8, 2010 2:41 pm

    I will definitely check out the Grann book, but first I want to get to his Lost City of Z, which is not a book that would have normally intrigued me. But your review (and the one we ran in the Herald by the fine Nancy Klingener) and many other positive ones has me interested.

    You’re on your own with the Psalms.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 8, 2010 3:01 pm

    Connie, I would not expect a football fan to be very spiritual. And yet, in the South and Midwest, footbal rivals Christianity as the dominant religion! Go figure! I’m pretty sure you won’t be disappointed by The Lost City of Z.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 8, 2010 3:42 pm

    NOW?! go easy on us Chauncey. I’m still finishing my Arab novel assignment, or was it a pledge.

    My “to-read-list” (which is an actual list not a mental list, which doesn’t work for me either r) has grown from leaflet size to a book in it’s own right.

    So I will read Dimiter… later. Thanks for another recommendation. Dumpster diving with Cadillac sounds interesting too.

    A guy in Miami translating Japanese and Chinese spiritual writings is random enough to have me take a look also.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 8, 2010 4:36 pm

      These are not assignments, merely suggestions. My contribution to the cultural conversation. Take what you need and leave the rest. These are all good, but criminy — no one has time to read everything.

      • Amy Rubinson permalink
        April 8, 2010 10:08 pm

        exactly my problem, walking into the book store is so exciting, but then I get too excited in there and buy too many books and can hardly even get through one of them! I think I have a problem…

  4. Candice permalink
    April 8, 2010 5:50 pm

    They all sound yummie. Thank you, Chauncey. Interested in what it’s like for homeless people and love eastern mysticism. No onward to the bookstore!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 8, 2010 10:14 pm

      Western mysticism is groovy, too, if approached like something new.

  5. Connie permalink
    April 9, 2010 3:10 pm

    I’m a recovering Catholic, Chauncey. Of COURSE I’m not very spiritual…

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