Kurt Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press, hardcover, $23.95)
Ever since his debut in 1952 with Player Piano, a novel about people on a fictional planet controlled by a computer called EPICAC, Kurt Vonnegut has resurfaced every few years to remind us—in fiction or in memoir—that technology should not be trusted, that civilization is a disease and that America's lethal military machine is a gun just itching to go off.
Vonnegut has been holding his tongue for five years now, and his latest book, A Man Without a Country, reads like the work of a man who feels he has held back too long. "We are killing this planet as a life-support system with poisons," writes the 82-year-old novelist. "Everybody knows it, and practically nobody cares."
A Man Without a Country organizes Vonnegut's complaints into 12 chapters on topics as diverse as sex and humanism. Each one begins with a silkscreen image of some aphorism. "Evolution is so creative," says one. "That is how we got giraffes." No other American humorist seesaws from gravity to gobbledygook this effectively. Life for Vonnegut is deadly serious, but the best way to deal with fear is to laugh right back in its face.
Everything is Burning
Gerald Stern (W.W. Norton, hardcover, $23.95)
The American Academy of Poets recently honored Gerald Stern with its $100,000 Wallace Stevens Award for mastery of the poetic form. Although the prize is well deserved, you can't help but wonder about false advertising. After all, you would have to look hard in America to find a poet more unlike Stevens. While the former Hartford insurance agent was a wizard of a kind of occult mathematics, Stern is more akin to Walt Whitman. There is an ecstatic verve to Stern's verse, even when steeped in melancholia.
Of all Stern's many volumes, Everything is Burning might just be his saddest. Gardening, memory, dead bats, the work of Ezra Pound—almost everything Stern encounters in this new book turns him sourly inward. Unlike his early work, which sprawls and snakes with long lyrical lines, these are short, almost brutal poems.
Like Shakespeare in some of his sonnets, Stern is an expert moderator of line and breath. By being spare with punctuation and cutting off lines before they can culminate, Stern has crafted unusual poems here. They do not shut down, but rather wind themselves up and up and up—subverting our expectations for closure or catharsis.
As a result, a reader finishes each poem elevated, addled and occasionally a little anxious, as if someone had just run into a theater screaming fire. "You should fly / from the burning if you can," warns Stern. "And you should hold / your head oh either above or below the dust / and you should be careful."
Would that all fire-exit signs had this awful authority.
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906
Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, hardcover, $27.95)
When the Big One occurs, San Franciscans won't be able to say they didn't expect it. After all, California's City by the Bay already had its trial run, and it was a thorough dress rehearsal. At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault, which runs 800 miles down the California coast, ruptured in Northern California. It was felt as far north as Oregon and as far south as Los Angeles.
The earthquake—which registered an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale—was indeed the Hurricane Katrina of its day, destroying property, setting off fires that claimed somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand lives, and radically restructuring the city's economy. In his latest book, A Crack in the Edge of the World, Simon Winchester describes in detail—with maps, charts and descriptions of his own journeys crisscrossing North America—what it taught us about geology.
According to Winchester, the quake did more than displace 200,000 Californians. It also kick-started an intense examination of the Earth itself, leading in the early '60s to plate tectonics, the study of how parts of the earth's outer crusts grind up against each other to create mountains, volcanoes and, of course, earthquakes.
Readers who devoured John McPhee's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning Annals of the Former World might find this book too heavy on Geology 101, but it's hard to resist. Like McPhee, Winchester is a fine prose stylist, and his language ripples like the rolling green hills of Northern California. It's also a testament to his skill as an explanatory journalist that by the time we reach the quake itself, buried some 250 pages into the book, the event appears not as some act of God—as it did to people then—but as a foregone conclusion for a planet destined for constant and often devastating upheaval.
Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera
Anne Carson (Knopf, hardcover, $24.95)
The thematic preoccupations of this strange and gorgeously disparate book come into view like objects frozen and then thawed. An opening sequence of poems reveals the poet's mother dying, each verse thinning to a single word—as if to mirror a terminal patient's tunneling of days. There will be no weeping for oblivion, however. The prose essay that follows, "Every Exit is an Entrance," promptly launches into a self-proclaimed "praise of sleep." "It is the moment when the shiver stops," Carson summarizes in another poem. "It hurts me to know this."
This combination of flatness and beauty, of interrogative prose with glancing and often exquisitely spare poetry has become Carson's forte. Some might call it her shtick, and were she not in possession of such a supple mind it might be time to call her on it. But Decreation is a more mysterious and thoughtful volume than that. Jangling our senses, it presents art forms and life issues one by one, then slowly, masterfully takes them apart. In the end, we are left with a single realization—that art is a temporary fugue state, after which "other fears ... soon return."