Book bits

Three books Jack Kerouac, a review of 'Still to Mow,' reader's picks, and a Top 10 list of out-print-books.

3 books about Kerouac

It was exactly 50 years ago tomorrow – on Sept. 5, 1957 – that Jack Kerouac's beat-generation classic "On the Road" first hit bookstores. This September, to celebrate that anniversary, bookstores will again be awash in Kerouac.

On the Road: The Original Jack Kerouac Scroll offers readers a chance to see a text version of the 120-foot scroll of typing paper on which, during a three-week frenzy in the spring of 1951, Kerouac typed his first draft of the book (although he'd already been working on it mentally for some years at that point). This first draft – which is longer, edgier, and uses the real names of Kerouac's friends – will certainly be of interest to the book's serious fans.

Also of interest to those deeply into Kerouac is Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road by Paul Maher Jr., which retraces Kerouac's steps and delves deeper into Kerouac's other writing and influences, offering some noteworthy new insights in the process.

Those uncertain about their level of interest in the Kerouac story might prefer to pick up Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road by John Leland (New York Times reporter and author of "Hip: A History'), which argues that – contrary to its reputation as an ode to rebellion – the book is full of lessons on how to grow up.

– Marjorie Kehe

Still to Mow

Author: Maxine Kumin

Maxine Kumin's Still to Mow should come with a warning label: This book starts twice, and the second opening is the one with the fire.

That's important to know because the collection – Kumin's 16th – opens with "Mulching," a poem that hints at the darkness to come, then ends with an image of the speaker "wanting to ask/ the earth to take my unquiet spirit,/ bury it deep, make compost of it." Those lines sound almost benign, especially since the poems that follow are fairly well-mannered.

But in section 2, Kumin replaces politeness with passion, and anger simmers below the imagery. Take, for example, these lines from "Extraordinary Rendition," where oak leaves are

… bruised the color of those

insurgent boys Iraqi policemen captured

purpling their eyes and cheekbones before

lining them up to testify to the Americans

that no, no, they had not been beaten …

Kumin writes about events with the clear gaze of a journalist and the ire of an activist. Dick Cheney and his pheasant hunting end up in her crosshairs, as do the war in Iraq and people who drive SUVs. Nicholas Berg and Daniel Pearl also color her pages, along with those left homeless in New Orleans and the starving masses in Zambia.

These poems are not for the faint of heart; they're for readers who, like Kumin, love this flawed world and feel compelled to point out the injustices they loathe. That's what fuels the work in this collection and why Kumin looks for order and substance in various forms.

As part of this search, she questions the coming of the Messiah and explores the value of religious ritual. She recalls her parents' shabbas celebrations – challah and roast beef, her father's recitations – and shows how powerless such practices are to save the planet and its creatures.

Yet for all her disillusionment – "why did we rationalists repeat the liturgy/ of Genesis and flood that we disbelieved?" – Kumin finds a divine presence in the natural world and solace in both the memory of loved ones (her mother who wore corsets ) and long-term relationships (her husband of 60 years.)

"Still to Mow" is filled with love – a rugged love – which is why the first 14 poems seem oddly pale or out of place. Straighten your back before starting this collection, and consider reading the first section last.

– Elizabeth Lund

OLDIES BUT GOODIES last week released their annual list of the Top 10 most searched for out-of-print books across 10 different categories. They pointed to a "distinctly masculine tone" to this year's list, noting the success of titles like The Book of Bond or Everyman His Own 007 by Kingsley Amis and The Great Tool Emporium by David Manners, although I Do: Achieving Your Dream Wedding by Jessica Simpson was also a featured title.

Books scoring high in particular categories include Sex by Madonna (No. 1 in arts and music); Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by Tim Reiterman (biography); The Lion's Paw by Robb White (children's); Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick (crafts, hobbies, and how-to); Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr. (fiction); Flash in the Pan: Life and Death of an American Restaurant by David Blum (history); One Way Up by John F. Straubel (science); Rage by Stephen King (science fiction, fantasy, and horror), and Our Harvard by Jeffrey L. Lant, ed. (society and culture.) – M. K.

Readers' picks

Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon's chronicle of their year following a 100-mile diet, makes a challenging companion to Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." – Fred Maier, Randolph, Ohio

Meg Noble Peterson's book Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? takes the reader on a journey through Africa and Asia. It is a very personal account of a divorced mother of five grown children who travels alone through four continents in an attempt to understand herself and the world. She is naive, but fearless. A most enjoyable read. – Jean Covert Blesh, Endicott, N.Y.

My wife and I are enjoying the detective novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. His hero, if he can called that, is Kurt Wallander, a divorced, middle-aged, depressed detective in a small-town police department on the southern coast of Sweden. The constantly overcast weather darkens the mood of the principal characters and evokes a strong sense of place. My favorite so far is the 1993 The White Lioness.– Larry Langgard, Regina, Saskatchewan

I am reading Banker to the Poor by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. It is a subject I find deeply interesting.– Marian Musse, Alexandria, Va.

The House that George Built by Wilfrid Sheed, includes delightfully intimate portraits of the icons of Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers stand out among those creative geniuses who gave us the songs that have become known as American Popular Music. – Bill Hill, Tampa, Fla.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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