Al Alvarez: "The Biggest Game in Town" (Picador)
Back in the early 1970s, Al Alvarez wrote "The Savage God," a study of suicide which contributed in no small part to the mythology that came to surround his friend, the great poet Sylvia Plath. A poet himself, and one who had attempted suicide, Alvarez was drawn too by the intense thrills of rock climbing and, especially, poker -- then a backroom activity that drew little media attention. In 1983 he published this now classic chronicle of the World Series of Poker. Re-issued with a new introduction, it remains perhaps the most engaging account of high-stakes Vegas poker with great portraits of legends like Stu Ungar and Doyle Bronson. "The rustling, whirring calm that passes for silence in Binion's Horseshoe thickened, like air before a thunderstorm," Alvarez writes. Ungar, having won the tournament, is asked what he will do with all that money. "Lose it," Ungar says sheepishly.
Winner's book has a splendid subtitle: "The Neorotic Genius of Dutch Soccer." The subject here is how a small country in northern Europe has, in the last 40 years, consistently produced stylish, visionary national soccer teams, yet, with the same predictability, failed, sometimes very narrowly, to win the World Cup. What does that say about the genius and limitations of a country's culture? At the center of this story is the glamorous and enigmatic figure of Johan Cruyff, one of the greatest, and almost certainly the most intelligent, players ever to grace the game. The inventor of "total football," the coiner of wonderful aphorisms -- "The game always begins afterwards" and "If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better" -- and the guiding spirit behind the team of Barcelona, Cruyff dazzled the world, inspired millions of column inches and even fiction (including a great short story by American writer Jim Shepard), and somehow failed the Dutch when they needed him most.
Simon Critchley: "The Book of Dead Philosophers" (Vintage)
Critchley, professor of philosophy at the New School in New York, addresses a classic theme, "that to philosophize is to learn how to die," through telling of the lives, and deaths, of 200 or so great thinkers. Apparently Lucretius committed suicide because he was driven mad by a love potion. Michel Foucault died of AIDS. Roland Barthes was hit by a dry-cleaning van. And the wife of Alfred J. Ayer, having choked on a piece of salmon and then revived, pronounced that "Freddie has got so much nicer since he died." Critchley scotches the myth that Aeschylus was zapped by an eagle dropping the hard shell of a turtle on his head but confirms that Heraclitus baked to death in cow dung. Anecdotes provoke insights, so gradually Critchley compiles an encyclopedia of the history of thought and our changing attitudes toward life and death.
Robert Schlesinger: "White House Ghosts" (Simon & Schuster)
"His face cratered by a childhood bike accident, Howe was known as 'the medieval gnome,' " writes Schlesinger, describing Louis McHenry Howe, Franklin D. Roosevelt's strategist and one of his speechwriters. "He was devoted to FDR, territorially jealous, snapping at others who drew close to his Franklin." Howe was indeed so territorial, as Schlesinger recounts, that he rewrote and almost wrecked the famous speech in which FDR promised the New Deal. This book traces the evolution of the presidential speechwriter, telling in rich anecdote how presidents from FDR to Bush the Second have been helped to find their public voice. Bill Clinton "never met a sentence he couldn't fool with," while Ronald Reagan, who understood the power of simple words, assembled a great team of writers. How presidencies work on the inside.
Andrew Delbanco (editor): "The Portable Abraham Lincoln" (Penguin Classics)
Abraham Lincoln, of course, wrote his own stuff and ranks among the masters of prose. As Shelby Foote put it, Lincoln "wrote American -- same kind of American that Mark Twain was to write later on." Lincoln's language, as Delbanco points out in his excellent introduction, was astringent, lucid and moving. He wrote so that he could read himself aloud, and, the older he became, the sharper and clearer his prose turned. On Feb. 5, 1864, he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: "On principle I dislike an oath which requires a man to swear he has not done wrong. It rejects the Christian principle of forgiveness on terms of repentance. I think it is enough if the man does no wrong hereafter." Simple, true, brilliant.
David Peace: "Nineteen Seventy-Four" (Vintage)
Peace, the English crime writer now resident in Tokyo, grew up in the north of England in the 1970s, when Peter Sutcliffe, a serial killer known as the Yorkshire Ripper, was going about his grim and bloody business. Peace took this background, added an intimate channeling of the work of James Ellroy and created the Red Riding Quartet, four visceral novels that act as a fictional secret history of the time. The writing is hard-boiled and jumpy to the point of neurosis -- "The door opened. The black hair, the white face, the hand outstretched, the grip tight" -- but made fresh by its use of Yorkshire vernacular and idiom. These books, previously available in the United States only through Serpent Tail imports, are now being published by Vintage, which has had success with Peace's later Japan-set series.
Kobe Abe: "The Ark Sakura" (Vintage)
This is a welcome reissue. Kobe Abe, a Japanese writer who died in 1993, wrote dark fantasies that recall Borges and Kafka while anticipating Haruki Murakami. The writing, as in much of the best fantasy, feels very concrete and creates an eerie compulsion. "Once a month I go shopping downtown, near the prefectural offices. It takes me the better part of an hour to drive there but . . . the local shops won't do. Besides, I'd rather not run into anyone I know. My nickname trails after me like a shadow," writes the narrator, nicknamed Pig, or Mole, who's converting a huge underground quarry into an "ark" that will survive a coming nuclear holocaust. His ark is invaded, however, and there follows a deadly battle for survival. As in Abe's other work, "The Box Man" or "The Woman in the Dunes," the theme is isolation and its consequences.
Abraham Merritt: "The Moon Pool" (Overlook Press)
Abraham Merritt was an American fantasy writer from the beginning of the last century, a successor to the British writer H. Rider Haggard and a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft. His first novel, "The Moon Pool," features a tropical island where there's hypnotic light and a portal to a subterranean world. As Lynette Porter notes in her introduction to this new edition, Merritt's novel has inspired some notable progeny, not least ABC's "Lost" and aspects of the Indiana Jones movies. "Across the Silver Waters there was no sign of neither Web of Rainbows nor colossal pillars nor the templed lips that I had seen curving out beneath the Veil when the Shining One had swirled out to greet its priestess and its voice and to dance with the sacrifices," Merritt writes. Hemingway he wasn't, but "The Moon Pool" fits squarely in the American pulp tradition that concerns our fascination with, and fear of, the Other; in its goofy, dreamy, hokey way, the story is still irresistible.
David Young: "Du Fu -- A Life in Poetry" (Alfred A. Knopf)
Du Fu (whom we used to call Tu Fu) was a friend and contemporary of Li Bai (formerly known as Li Po) and one of the great figures of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), which, David Young argues, "was perhaps the greatest age for poetry that the history of civilization has known." The work of this period was first introduced to the West by Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley, whose translations still provide a benchmark. Here Young, a poet who has previously translated Petrarch, makes the old new again by using the poems to tell the narrative of Du Fu's life, in the Chinese court and away from it. His versions beautifully create humor, sadness and clarity: "The lake water's clear / the forest wind's pure / don't go -- get off your horse / we'll finish this wine / I've let my white hair grow / like the crest of a crane / what do I care for the neighborhood roosters / telling us all about dawn?"
Ernesto Cardenal: "Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems" (New Directions)
Cardenal, now in his 80s, is a Roman Catholic priest and was a leading light of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. One of his country's most revered figures, Cardenal is these days being persecuted by President Daniel Ortega, the leader whose legend Cardenal did much to create and who has slid now into authoritarian rule. Such tends to be the fate of the revolutionary writer. Cardenal is political, of course, and much of the work presented here (translated by many illustrious hands, including Jonathan Cohen, Thomas Merton and Kenneth Rexroth) deals with the struggle and history of his country and Latin America at large. But he can sing lyrically too. In "Managua, 6:30 p.m.," he writes: "In the evening the neon lights are soft / and the mercury streetlamps pale and beautiful . . . / And the red star on a radio tower / in the twilight sky of Managua / looks as pretty as Venus / and an ESSO sign looks like the moon / The red tail-lights of the cars are mystical / (The soul is like a girl kissed hard behind a car)." Beautiful.
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