An Elemental Thing, essays by Eliot Weinberger (New Directions)

In 2005 Weinberger published What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles, a collection of his political articles (NBCC prize nominee). He's returned with literary work, but it's quite different from his past essay collections, such as Works on Paper. Weinberger is the great translator of Octavio Paz into English -- but it's the Borges of Selected Non-Fictions, which he also translated, that is the presiding influence in An Elemental Thing. These brief pieces really aren't essays at all. Each of the 34 chapters is a slice of micro-lore: on Europeans' longtime fascination with the tiger and rhinoceros; on the habits of various historic Chinese emperors and figures; on stars; saints and penitents; the seasons; the image of the "vortex"; the legends of Mohammed; the symbology of the hand. Taken together, the chapters create the sense of both the provisional and enduring nature of things made to signify. An Elemental Thing is a diversion and an education, miscellaneous in its broad selection of material, discreet in its reluctance to analyze, generous in its display of intriguing tales, odd facts, and curious habits.