Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

New Books Report: November 2007

By Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 27, 2007 02:12 am
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

the trick
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

baseball cards
spread out on the bed
April rain

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.
3 Responses to "New Books Report: November 2007"

by Bill Ectric on

I especially like the baseball haiku. Some high points of my summers over the past few years were watching my son play baseball.

Like Gary Snyder's Danger on Peaks, Baseball haiku fits into a sub-genre of poetry that might interest people who are not ordinarily into poetry.

by craig on

Subway wall messages: the thoughts that flicker
through your mind in the night as the subway train
moves through the underground tunnel.

You happen to have a marker pen, in your backpack
and on this particular night, of all nights, a thought that just seems to be going through your
mind.A thought that seems to be illuminated in
some letters that are yelling from the depths of
some unknown reason.

You want to just get to your destination, just want to get through the moment, let the flashing
tunnel go by, forget the faces in the car, the
looks that whither, the never never expressions.
and that other thought the one that cries out in
some impossible haunting corridor of your subconscious.Here in the subway with that murderious wall covered in people's history.

You have the marker pen in hand suddenly, and you
are taken over by some nameless impulse and you begin to write like some possessed street corner
prophet, on the subway wall...after all.

Then you remember those words in that funky Simon
and Garfunkel song.And you realize you are just
a lyric that has been playing on the recond of
the human turntable.

What you wrote on that subway wall, just another
lost prophet voice in the howling wilderness.

As soon as you scralled your message, some other
cat comes along, and reads it, as you walk away.
and he takes out his marker pen, and continues
the....

It's nice to see Cor van den Heuvel doing something both interesting and cutting-edge for a change. His criteria utilised in editing the various editions of The Haiku Anthology, and how they have contributed negatively to the state of the haiku over the past few decades--I'll never forgive him for that, however. (Google for my essay, 'Dial 5-7-5 For Classicism'.)