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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Foundation Picks Represent Best Contemporary Writing

Each year the National Book Foundation nominates for its awards five novels and five works of nonfiction of exceptional merit. This selective list offers a convenient way for Americans to choose the best of contemporary writing, and on a seasonal note, the books also can make great Christmas gifts.

Holy Skirts by Rene Steinke (Morrow, 2005).

During World War I, many distinguished European artists escaped to New York City, where they formed the core of an avant-garde art movement called New York Dada.

Reflecting people's unease with the advent of the Machine Age and with the horror of the insane war being fought in the trenches of Europe, the Dadaists were anarchists who acted like buffoons and flouted the traditional standards of beauty in art.

The artist who most personified Dada was poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She dressed Dada, wrote Dada and lived Dada. A priestess of Dada, her skirts, to which she sometimes attached a functional taillight, were consecrated works of art themselves and, indeed, "holy."

Baroness Elsa was the daughter of an artistic and troubled mother who was emotionally estranged from her callous husband. The teenaged Elsa ran away to Berlin, where she worked as a chorus girl and artist's model.

At the soirees of Berlin, Elsa met two of her three husbands aa dull architect and a dishonest poet. In New York she married a German baron who was a compulsive gambler. After his return to Germany without her, she lived alone with her mutt, Pinkie. in a run-down tenement building.

Ultimately, Elsa's life must be reckoned a sad one, but Steinke makes it an exhilarating one in this National Book award-nominated novel.

A new edition of her poems was published this year.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch (Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

I am again indebted to the National Book Foundation for suggesting this masterful and fast-paced biography.

Rousseau, a Swiss-born philosopher and writer, was that rarest of men: an original thinker. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that he received next to no formal education. The son of a Geneva watchmaker whose mother died shortly after his birth, he was a wanderer all his life.

During his first 40 years he tried many occupations. He was deemed too slow to study for the priesthood and not talented enough to be a musician, and he found his work as a valet, a tutor and a secretary degrading.

Seeking freedom from obligations to other people, he did his best to refuse all patronage from the wealthy. It was when he moved to Paris and became a friend of Diderot, the chief editor of the great "Encyclopedie," (1751-72) that he took up his pen and found his true calling.

Rousseau believed that society enslaves us with its materialistic values, expectations, quick judgments and social hierarchies. It was he who wrote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

In "Confessions," Rousseau invented modern autobiography, with its stress on the importance of childhood experiences and its search for the hidden foundations of the self.

Rousseau's works sowed the seeds of romanticism and democracy that would soon sweep the world.

The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin (Random House, 2005).

The novels of Russian author Boris Akunin will appeal not only to male readers of Patrick O'Brian's Maturin naval stories and Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series, but also to female readers of Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.

The adventure at hand is told through the eyes of Varya Suvorova, a progressive young Russian woman who asserts her worth and independence from the men who admire her. She is not afraid to travel on the bandit-infested roads of Turkey or undertake a dangerous spying assignment for her country. She holds her own with the gallant officers of the czar's army.

She falls in love with the dashing Fandorin, and who can blame her? A 21-year-old wunderkind, he is Alexander II's top intelligence field operative and a member of the diplomatic corps. A master of deductive logic, he is handsome, impeccably dressed, physically fit and protected by a lucky star. Only a speech defect, the result of a concussion, confirms his mortality.

Fandorin's worthy foe is Anwar-effendi, the sultan's chief adviser, who almost singlehandedly outwits the entire Russian army. Anwar has been responsible for many enlightened reforms, but he is also a fanatic who does not hesitate to do whatever it takes to ensure a victory for the Ottoman Empire. It is Fandorin's job to uncover a traitor in the Russian's midst. It is no surprise that the wily Anwar is mixed up in the villainy.

If Boris Akunin were an American writer, his stylish novel might, too, have been nominated for the National Book Award.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.