With Christmas coming up and the fall book season in full swing, newspapers have been getting 20 to 25 books a week for some time now.
And since there isn't space to do justice to them all, we'll try to do justice to four. The following capsule reviews feature books with regional interest; books worthy of the time and attention of conscientious readers:A LITERARY HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN WEST; Texas Christian University Press; 1,408 pages; $79.50.
Trying to cram a complete literary history of the West into one volume is a little like H.G. Wells stuffing the history of the world into his famous two-book set.
Still, the editors of this large chunk of history have been meticulous and honest in their task. Thomas J. Lyon of Utah State University served as senior editor for the project. And he and his colleagues have approached the job, it seems to me, like boatmen navigating a river. We get the mainstream (oral tradition, journal and journalism, wilderness writing and the expanding delta of regional fiction and poetry). But along the way they chart some interesting tributaries: ethnic literature, Mormon literature, Western filmscripts, etc.
The mini-biographies are especially fine. Wallace Stegner on Bernard DeVoto is must-reading, and the artful word portraits of William Eastlake, William Stafford, Wright Morris, Willa Cather and a dozen others make this not only a literary history, but a literary work in itself.
The drawback, of course, is that exhaustive studies tend to omit people. (Thomas McGuane's name never comes up, for instance, and Ivan Doig deserves much more.) Nevertheless, this volume is a lot of bang for the buck. The price is a bit high for family dining, but Western critics and scholars shouldn't leave home without it.
HIS FACE; Edited by Marion Wheeler; Chameleon Books; 128 pages; $24.95.
A coffee-table Christmas book to top all coffee-table Christmas books. Chameleon Books gives us 95 full-color facial portraits of Jesus drawn from the works of the world's greatest painters. The book breaks down into sections: "Youth," "Ministry," "Suffering" and "Triumph." And the pictures speak for themselves, literally. There is no text except for an occasional scripture.
The artists range from Raphael to Salvador Dali and the reproductions are gorgeous. Not to be flip, but book lovers who spend time with this collection may never spell "Christmas" with an "X" again.
(The book will not be available until after Oct. 25th).
THE BEST OF THE WEST; Edited by James Thomas; Peregrine Smith Books; 224 pages (paper); $9.95.
For years we had one anthology of Western writing: Ray B. West's "Rocky Mountain Reader."
Now, as interest in the region mounts, we're getting several. "Writers of the Purple Sage" and "Interior Country" are two recent examples. Peregrine Smith offers a third anthology with its new "Best of the West" series.
Everyone who edits an anthology brings his or her agenda, of course. James Thomas, founding father of both Quarterly West and the Writers at Work conference in Park City, seems to have called in a few favors to put this one together. About half the writers have been guest lecturers at Writers at Work. At least four authors are affiliated with the University of Utah.
In his introduction, Thomas says the main criteria for including a story was good writing. And it is good. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Ron Carlson give us stories in the voice of hard-scrabble, working class Western natives. Francois Camoin, John Updike and Alice Adams add a sophisticated edge.
What the anthology gains in scope, however, it tends to lose in focus. Is a John Updike story about Reno or Alice Adams on Palm Springs really Western fiction? And one misses the names of fine ethnic writers such as Alberto Rios, James Welch, Rudy Anaya and Scott Momaday.
Still, this is the first installment. As the series takes shape we may end up with quite a cross-section.
LETTER AT THE END OF WINTER; Poems by Don Stap; The University of Central Florida Press; 54 pages; $7.95.
Don Stap gained a Ph.D. at the University of Utah. He served his apprenticeship well. Now he pays for his scholarship with a fine book.
"Letter at the End of Winter" is a well-wrought, congenial collection of poems. The theme is often loss, the saving grace of the poems is usually memory.
Stap ticks along, making few false moves. There are no bad sentences here. And his random use of cliches and hackneyed phrases gives the work a nice, conversational lilt ("take it or leave it," "Like father, like son," "death, taxes," "another day, another dollar.")
Extreme attention to craft, however, means Stap often opts for precision over passion, and many poems show an uncomfortable - almost journalistic - distance between the poet and his experience.
If Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane were the thoroughbreds of 19th Century American verse, Stap comes to us out of the Crane stable.