Coming, as I am, fresh from the first day of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, with my "big ears" filled with the sounds of American music, from it's earliest beginnings through at least the '70's, I can't help but wax enthusiastic about the musical art of writing represented in this month's newsletter. The enthusiasm is laced with more than nostalgia, a sense of traditions upheld and reinvented. Whether it's the re-envisioning of Vonnegut in the new novel Meeks; or the expansion of the social criticism of the best of scifi in William Gibson's latest; or the creative, belletristic, idea-driven reportage of Ted Conover; contemporary writers are keeping on keeping on: giving us the fine writing about ideas and issues close to our hearts, our heads, and our homes. All the better for us to improvise creative solutions to our everyday and our global challenges, our open-ended questions and our real communal needs. There is an infinitely curious and useful array of great writing out there waiting to be read and heard. I hope you get around to reading some soon.
John & all Dieselfolk
If the recent 10-day highway traffic jam in China had you wondering about global transportation systems, I have the perfect book for you! Pulitzer-finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Ted Conover traveled to six different cities around the world to explore the ways that getting around can impact people's lives financially, socially, environmentally, even sexually. From East African trucking routes to West Bank checkpoints, Peruvian mahogany waterways to a frozen Indian riverbed, (and, yes, Chinese highways), Conover uses his impressive powers of observation to glean, first-hand, how these modes of transportation are actually changing lives - for better or for worse. Add to the mix Conover's clear-eyed, down-to-earth, non-academic voice and you have one of the best books of the year. -- Kim Okamura
If you are an eclectic fiction reader and have relegated William Gibson to his cyberpunk following, as I once did, you are making a huge mistake. Zero History is as funny as David Foster Wallace, as satirical as Kurt Vonnegut and as visionary as Philip K. Dick. Gibson's characters are psychologically complex and often utterly endearing, never mere vehicles for advancing the plot. He peppers his closely observed world of coolhunters, hackers, global marketeers and uber-fashionistas with observations that are too hilarious not to write down. Working my way backwards I've just started Spook Country and then on to Pattern Recognition. -- Margaret Simpson
Every once in a while a terrific novel comes along that uses a remarkably accessible yet absurd setting as a vehicle to illustrate a broader point about American life. Orwell and Vonnegut are masters of this, and echoes of their satire and wit are found throughout Julia Holmes' stellar first novel, Meeks.
Without explanation of where or when, we are introduced to a civilization that lives in fear of unprovoked attacks from the "Enemy" across the river, and values marriage more highly than any other social institution. Single men are referred to simply as "Bachelors" and they cannot work until they are married. The catch, of course, is that the most desirable apparel a bachelor can own in order to attract a woman who might marry them is a good suit, something most cannot afford unless inherited or obtained through begging the community Tailor, an elderly man whose lack of pity makes the task nearly impossible.
The Bachelors all live together in a Bachelor House, a collective where they practice the skills necessary to charm women at the local park, such as owning a gun collection; practicing really, really hard to be nice; or, merely, painting and writing poetry. The men practice these talents with a passionless devotion for fear of being thrown out of the Bachelor house by the aptly named "Brothers of Mercy." Failed Bachelors are placed into civil service or, if deemed too depressed to function, are executed.
The two main characters entangled in this harsh world are Ben, a Bachelor who spends more time begging the Tailor for a new suit than he does mingling with the ladies, and Meeks, a frequently bullied police officer who is disrespected by townspeople and coworkers alike. Both characters struggle not only to travel the socially accepted path but also to resist the urge to throw a wrench in the machine, to see how life might be different.
Where Meeks really thrives is in its presentation of the American dream as nothing more than a hierarchical checklist, and how the social ramifications of having aspirations outside the status quo is analogous to being ostracized by the popular kids in high school. As soon as you finish, you'll want to start again. -- Jon Stich
This isn't your typical piece of travel literature. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, published in 1945, was written during the years after Henry Miller returned to the United States, having fled Paris in the midst of World War II. Miller lets his mind and pen run wild, albeit in an expertly crafted and controlled structure of course, in his travelogue of the country he stopped calling home. Whereas your typical travelogue moves chronologically or is made up of sections designated by locale, Miller's chapters revolve around subjects that interested him most on his journey. In 'The Shadows', Miller devotes his pages to a rich eccentric living in an enormous mansion in New Iberia, Louisiana. In 'Automotive Passacaglia', he relays his various car troubles, along with the various encounters with garagemen across the country, whom Miller compares to doctors with opposing diagnoses. The chapter 'A Night with Jupiter' begins with Miller stargazing (at actual stars in the sky) while walking down Cahuenga Boulevard, which reminds him of the time in Paris when Miller, drunk on euphoria and three beers, climbs his roof naked in order to get a glimpse of Jupiter, only to slip and fall through a pane of glass below. The passage, hilariously written, ends with a trip to the hospital discussing Surrealism with his nurse, followed by breakfast at the cafe dressed in a blood-stained bathrobe. Miller, like the automatic writing of the Surrealists, associates his dreams, thoughts, and musings with his experience on the American road. This book is the result, which I find appropriate, as it justly represents the big dreams, vast landscapes, and twisting roads that make up this country. -- Geo Ong
Brain Candy is like Ripley's Believe it or Not peppered with logic games, optical illusions with a touch of Zen wisdom thrown in for good measure. Informative snippets pack the pages. Randomly opening, I learned that the female malaria mosquito is attracted to Limburger cheese, herring communicate by farting and scientists at Carnegie Mellon have created a website that will compute your chances of dying this year. Reading it, I found myself laughing out loud and gasping with astonishment while sharing my amusements with friends. Break this book out at your next gathering and try the Psy-Op games for a laugh (I recommend Veggie Math). Pick up a copy, and the next time you have a few minutes, read a few entries, have a chuckle and feel a wee bit smarter knowing that metrophobia is the fear of poetry (Really? I've read some bad poetry in my day but I've never been afraid of it!). -- Cheryl Ryan
Surrealism, as a term, has somehow lost its meaning over the years. For being such an influential art movement in the twentieth century, it is perplexing that the idea of Surrealism has been cheapened, overused, misunderstood, and not taken seriously. Today, for the most part, Surrealism is Salvador Dali pinned to the walls of college dorm rooms because it 'looks f****** crazy' - nothing more. The Surreal House, a new collection of Surrealist works across different media, generations, and ideas, not only restores the merit and importance of the movement but also elevates it to a place we're not used to seeing it: in the home. The Surreal House explores the significant relationship between surrealism and architecture, both structurally and metaphorically. The chapters are divided thematically and arranged like rooms, with photo representations and text strategically placed to achieve the right feng shui. Overall, The Surreal House is a beautiful collection of what Surrealism is and can be about. -- Geo Ong
What better way to teach your child the wonders of what books can do than by illustrating what they cannot? A monkey is peacefully reading when a jackass approaches and wants to know what the book can do. Can it text? No. Blog? No. Scroll? No. Tweet? No...it's a book. This cheeky interaction lasts until the final page, and is a perfect distillation of the current debate on books versus e-readers. It seems appropriate to introduce children to the idea sooner rather than later, and I can think of no better way than with this slim, heartwarming picture book. -- Grant Outerbridge