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Wednesday, December 28,2011

Book 'em!

A harvest of Hemingway, plus first-rate reads from contemporary authors

by Bill Castanier

When it comes to books, 2011 was the YOH — Year of Hemingway — complete with a masterful collection of letters, a new coffee table book, a book on his first wife and a book on his boat, the Pilar, joining a Woody Allen movie that pays tribute to the Lost Generation of the “Moveable Feast.” This seems fitting since 2011 was the 50th anniversary of Papa’s death.

“The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I 1906-1922” is the first of 14 volumes that will fill our shelves over the next decade or so. What makes this book remarkable is how it covers the years in which Hemingway spent idyllic summers “Up North” in Michigan. You will find yourself asking if anyone ever threw out a single scrap of paper that Hemingway had something to do with. Of course, the answer is no, except for Hadley, his first wife, whom author Paula McLain has resurrected in “The Paris Wife,” her fictional account of those lazy, hazy, crazy days of Paris. McLain has captured the love, the betrayal and this unusual relationship in one beautiful read.

“Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost” could’ve been subtitled: “His Fifth Wife” or maybe a “Mistress for Life.” For sure, the Pilar, was his first and last love, and it was where Hemingway spent his happiest days, decimating swordfish and marlin, chasing women and teaching his sons the manly arts of boozing and cigar chomping. In case you didn’t know, he also chased Nazi submarines on his beloved Pilar. “Hemingway’s Boat” is an unusual but satisfying look at the man of letters and adventure, taken from the totally different vantage point of the flying bridge.

“Hemingway: A Life in Pictures” is an elegantly assembled 200-plus-page coffee table book co-authored by his granddaughter, Mariel, and Hemingway scholar Boris Vejdovsky. The phrase “never seen before” has become a clich' when referring to Hemingway photos, but this book is packed with hundreds of such Hemingway photographs, chronicling him from childhood to manhood. There are some real stunners here, so you can forgive Vejodovsky for identifying Walloon Bay as being “near Oak Park.”  He will pay for this mistake many times over next summer when the International Hemingway Society meets in the Petoskey/Harbor Springs area.

I’m not sure that R. Crumb and Hemingway would’ve been buddies, but they were both creative geniuses that loved France and art. After all, Papa did love the work of Picasso and Dali (“Midnight in Paris” tells us so).

Crumb has a new slip-covered collection of his work on music projects aptly styled to look like a faux-record album and titled  “The Complete Record Cover Collection.” There are the gems he did for Janis Joplin, but also lesser-known pieces, like those he did for the Hawks & Eagles, the inventors of cowboy-gypsy music. A word of warning for neophytes: Crumb is best-known for his rude, misogynistic work of the 1960s, which is well represented. But put that aside and dig deeper into some of the best record cover albums ever. One question: What’s up with no Creem magazine art, Mr. Crumb?

Let’s get serious for a moment and put Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve” on the bookshelf. “The Swerve” is a biblio-mystery of sorts about how the discovery of one lost poem, “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, changed the world of art and literature and helped create the Renaissance.

“Swerve,” which won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, shows how one man’s vision of the world can change it in ways that were unimaginable to him.

Two authors also helped redefine the river trip and riding the rails this year by looking at those literary conventions in totally new ways. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s “Once Upon a River,” about a about a young woman on a coming-of-age river trip, seemed to be on everyone’s “best of list” this year. Continuing on the noirish themes she has perfected in previous work, Campbell’s “River” is a beautiful, complex and haunting look at nature and a way of life. 

After “Once Upon a River,” jump a train with Scott Sparling’s “Wire to Wire.” The Jackson native jumped trains as a teenager and turned that experience into a novel that is dark and disturbing without vampires or zombies — although his characters sometimes seem to be devoid of any lifelike characteristics. When you’re finished reading “Wire,” you’ll wonder if you just read a mystery or a dystopian adventure. This debut novel is quite unlike any ride you have ever taken.

It seems we are always looking for the next Robert Johnson and his legendary pact with the devil. Susan Whitall, noted rock historian and former Detroit News journalist and editor of Creem Magazine, has dug deep to tell the story of Detroiter Little Willie John, who arguably helped create soul music. “Fever: Little Willie John’s Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul” delves into John’s life in music, which was one of great plateaus and deep trenches. Whitall’s engaging writing captures his life with great intensity. I’d take this book over a presidential biography anytime.

If you ever wondered how Michael Moore became Michael Moore, pick up “Here Comes Trouble,” his memoir of his early years. You’ll find yourself totally immersed in the sweet stories of childhood (and some less sweet). And the cover photo of Michael as a toddler is priceless.

As long as we are well into nostalgia, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” Susan Orlean’s biography of the one dog that helped shape America, is made for the movies. It’s the best dog book you may ever read, and Orleans, a University of Michigan grad, is one of the best storytellers around. 

Another U-M graduate, Jesmyn Ward, will bring you back to reality with her National Book Award-winning “Salvage the Bones,” about a poor black family in Mississippi confronting Hurricane Katrina. You will find out how familial love takes on all comers and, against all odds, stands tall against nature and other invaders.

Finally, two Michigan poet-novelists have written two of the most compelling collections of poetry you will find in one year. Jim Harrison’s “Songs of Unreason” and Laura Kasischke’s “Space in Chains” are sometimes desperate looks at a fleeting life. But taken one at a time over a long period they are more about who we are as human beings and what we care about the most.

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