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January 25, 2004|Susan Salter Reynolds

Twilight of Empire

Responses to Occupation

Edited by Mark LeVine, Viggo Mortensen and Pilar Perez

Perceval Press: 126 pp., $14.95 paper

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There's much to be proud of and appreciate in this anthology of essays, interviews, paintings, photographs, poems and journal entries. First, it underscores the fact that strong thoughts, feelings and conversations about Iraq continue even as news fades and leaders say the war is over. Second, it proves that commitment in its very beauty: The fine paper, the color and the design of the book attest to the fact that its contributors will not simply move on to the next issue. Third, many of them -- like Mark LeVine, Mike Davis and Jodie Evans (co-founder, with Medea Benjamin, of Code Pink), some of Southern California's finest thinkers and activists -- jumped in from the beginning and never stopped fighting. Evans and Benjamin traveled often to Iraq and their journal entries demonstrate how to act on one's convictions. You won't read responses to Iraq more human, thoughtful and constructive than these. There's no wonking, no ranting. "It can get so quiet," writes Viggo Mortensen in "Back to Babylon," a prose poem, "with or without the dead watching our constant deployments. From our tilted promontory we may see one last woman scuffle away across cracked parchment of dry wash beneath us, muttering to herself -- or is she singing at us? -- as she rounds the sheared granite face and disappears into a grove of spindly, trembling tamarisk shadows lining the main road."

*

Unknown Masterpieces

Writers Rediscover Literature's

Hidden Classics

Edited by Edwin Frank

New York Review Books: 158 pp., $12.95 paper

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"Those of us who love books," writes Michael Cunningham in this collection, "as well as those of us who write them, are sometimes called upon for prodigious acts of patience." And so 13 writers, including Francine Prose, Susan Sontag, John Updike, James Wood and Elizabeth Hardwick, give us -- joyfully but also a little overprotectively -- an insight into books they cannot allow to fall into further obscurity. These are true discoveries, even if their authors are sometimes familiar: "On the Yard," by Malcolm Braly; "Hindoo Holiday," by J.R. Ackerley; "The Pilgrim Hawk," by Glenway Wescott. "Today," writes Sontag of her choice ("Letters: Summer 1926," by Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva and Rainer Maria Rilke), echoing the view of several other contributors, "when 'all is drowning in Pharisaism' -- the phrase is Pasternak's -- their ardors and their tenacities feel like raft, beacon, beach."

*

Nudibranchia

A Novel

Sam Eisenstein

Red Hen Press: 108 pp., $13.95 paper

*

It's as if all the words got loose in the English department of your typical university. As for plot, imagine a petri dish whose microorganisms function as the players in your average English department. This novel in six voices is outrageous, hilarious. You'll never be able to take higher education seriously again. There's Adrianna, the gorgeous student ("I came from bullrushes smiling to placate the Egyptian-sort I knew would be there.... "). Dr. Lloyd, the lascivious professor. "I've been here forever," he says of his office, "spider in this corner, ready to pounce on you." The "Secret-ary" sits outside Dr. Lloyd's office: "I am nerve-center of the Department.... I read every message before it goes in whatever box." Dr. Frank is on to what's happening in Dr. Lloyd's office. He tells the Secret-ary: "We must keep vigil....We must up periscope and try to keep conning tower above water as long as possible." The Chair, a man with a "secretly-Mongolian nose," is obsessed with Tibet. And Anor, the alien:"When the creatures are in doubt," he notes wisely, "they attempt to mate." Does all this sound a bit familiar? By the end, it feels almost virtual: "If only I might press myself like a 'delete' button," thinks Adrianna, "wherein this entire story could be pulled, an electronic suction funnel." Ride 'em, cowboy!

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