Critical Mass

Dog Days of Summer Reads: Jane Ciabattari

By Jane Ciabattari

I just finished Joshua Clark's Heart Like Water, a beautifully written, sometimes comic, sometimes angry, always gripping memoir of his days in New Orleans during and after Katrina, Rita and the tragic aftermath of these disasters. Clark was one of the few who stayed in New Orleans for the duration. His first-person account begins in the French Quarter, where he and girlfriend hunker down to weather the storm, and evolves into a lyrical and damning witnessing of a city and a populace ravaged and abandoned. He joins the small army of those who step up to the plate and help out wherever they can. He travels through the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, and the Bywater, is one of the first to drive to Lafitte, La., to Baton Rouge, and to Magnolia, in Plaquemines Parish, tape recorder in hand, and let folks talk for themselves. He watches CNN cameras, the FEMA men and Black Hawks, the NYPD takes the measure of the alleys and attics and looted shops, the bars and hotels filled with refugees, dips himself in the warm waters of the mighty Mississippi as the winds of Rita gather fury. In the end he vows to “continue to drive, to document these places, walk their deserts, for as many years as it takes, to see exactly what will grow from this new American landscape, to record it, and help it.” (Once power came back, Clark sets up a fund to help New Orleans area writers affected by the storm, Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support or KARES; a portion of his royalties will go to that fund.)

I am not much for thrillers, but in the wake of the latest terrorist plot in England, I picked up Secret Asset, a spy novel by Stella Rimington, former head of Britain's MI5, and read it straight through in an evening. Tightly plotted, insightful, it tells of a mole within MI5 planted during the height of the IRA activity, never activated, and now, suddenly, apparently involved with the visit of a Pakistani imam to a London bookshop and a possible bomb plot. Liz Carlyle, the MI5 intelligence officer at the center of the story, is intelligent, compassionate, savvy, gutsy. Tin House Books was handing out fetching short-story collections at Book Expo America. My favorite of the lot: The Entire Predicament, by Lucy Corin, due out in October. A bit slim (only five stories), and uneven (the paragraph-long “First Person” doesn't cut it; read Charles Simic!), but more than made up for by the tour de force title story. I've been waiting to have time to spend with Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, and I was not disappointed when I read this first novel in English from the late Chilean writer on July 4th in a cool rain in the Catskill Mountains. Belano, the author's stand-in, has a deliciously wry and fluid point of view. There are so many characters in the “visceral realist” movement, so many satiric set pieces and literary zingers (Octavio Paz is a key target) it's hard to keep up, but I read many passages of the book aloud for the sheer pleasure of the prose, which I assume is even more dazzling in the original. –NBCC Board Member Jane Ciabattari