From the "So What?" category of contemporary fiction -- the question comes from readers, not from practitioners -- see After the Quake (Knopf), Haruki Murakami's new six-story collection. Written in response to the Kobe earthquake of 1995, Murakami sets out to study the effect of that disaster on a cross section of Japanese -- an abandoned husband, an aimless twentysomething, a publisher's underling, a successful pathologist, a hallucinating loan officer, a frustrated author -- and ends up with stories that are as flat as can be. Or is that precisely what an earthquake can do to stories as unmemorable as these? The strong strain of mysticism that runs through them only makes matters worse.
No need for mysticism on the part of V.S. Naipaul -- just a smart head and a mastery of the written word -- and The Writer and the World (Knopf) shows him in possession of both in this major collection of travel pieces from the past 40 years. Sample brilliance: Naipaul's hundred-page "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Perón, 1972-1991," an essay on South American history and a testament to the power of good eyewitness reporting that is as timely today as it was 10 years ago. "New York with Norman Mailer," Naipaul on Mailer's run for NYC mayor in the late '60s (a final wilting of flower power), is, on the other hand, more like ancient history.
More journalism, more truth-telling in the first of Vintage Books' new anthology series, Best American Crime Writing. Nicholas Pileggi (Wiseguy, Casino) is the guest editor; Otto Penzler of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and true-crime expert Thomas Cook are the series editors. Sample small-town murder mystery: "The Cheerleaders" by E. Jean Carroll. Sample police-force exposé: "Bad Cops" by Peter J. Boyer. Sample good-guy-as-outcast profile: "The Chicago Crime Commission" by Robert Kurson. Sample court-case drama (and summary of the bestseller Trial By Jury): "Anatomy of a Verdict" by D. Graham Burnett. In short, an excellent anthology to remind you not to throw out your unread back issues of Spin, The New Yorker, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine, the periodicals that first ran the above articles.
Of local note and/or interest:
Ex-Flyer intern Craig Aaron, currently managing editor of In These Times, has put together Appeal To Reason: 25 Years In These Times (Seven Stories Press), and if you're not already familiar with this muckraking biweekly, one look at this book's chapter headings will be clue enough whether you're for or against its progressive, leftist politics: Chapter 2: "Know Your Enemy: Right-Wing Extremism and the Politics of Our Time"; Chapter 4: "Doing It For Ourselves: Can Feminism Break Through the Class Ceiling?"; Chapter 10: "Color and Criminal Justice: America's Incarceration Epidemic"; Chapter 13: "Beyond Anti-Capitalism: Notes For a Future Manifesto"; Chapter 17: "Shifting Sands: The Myth of Islam Vs. the West"; and a closing piece by Slavoj Zizek: "Love Thy Neighbor," which dares to put the screws to easily the emptiest assertion of the past year: "Nothing will be the same after September ll." The list of articles that Aaron has collected is comprehensive. The overview/updates per chapter are good instruction. And the bylines are courtesy the usual suspects: Terry Southern, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Duberman, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, in addition to the publication's steadier contributors fighting to keep liberalism, antiglobalism, and near-socialism alive. Example: In These Times' founder James Weinstein, whose terms of solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are as humane today as they were when he wrote in 1978.
Without Covers (Purdue University Press), co-edited by Lesha Hurliman (herself a former Flyer intern and currently with Contemporary Media, the Flyer's parent company) and Numsiri C. Kunakemakorn, comes with this year's subtitle of distinction: literary_magazines@the_digital_edge. Which is to say its 18 essays focus on the question and future of the small literary magazine. Does it stay bound but read by a loyal audience, or does it move unbound online to win a wider readership but one with the ESC key one stroke away? The book's opening essay by R.M. Berry is titled "What Is a Book?," and if you think that's a no-brainer, think again, if by "book" we mean our very definition of the word "literature."
No philosophical issue raised, no political side taken, no crime committed/mystery solved, and no earthquake disaster (yet) but some travel required inside the Insiders' Guide To Memphis (Globe Pequot Press) by Nicky Robertshaw. One quibble. The newsstand price for Memphis magazine is $3.50, not the $5 Robertshaw writes. Which makes that publication even easier to afford in order to enjoy its fine restaurant reviewer -- Nicky Robertshaw.