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Book Review

It's very important to me to avoid novels that I won't like and works nonfiction from which I won't learn much of interest. I suppose it's important to anybody who's not a professional book critic. From forty-odd years of buying books, I have developed antennae that fairly reliably distinguish the appealing from the annoying. That may sound paradoxical - how can I judge something that I haven't read? But it has been tested. Every so often, somebody gives me a book about which I'd had misgivings, and the misgivings turn out to be right even though I'm hoping that they won't. And every once in a while I fall for an unexpectedly favorable word - which accounts for my having read The DaVinci Code. (I'll never listen to her again.)

The result is that the books that I write about here are books that I've liked. In an effort to avoid the appearance of saintliness, or of boosterism, or of indiscriminateness, therefore, I propose to run through The New York Times Book Review every weekend, and let you know why I'm not going to read most of the books covered. (I'd have written this yesterday, and had it read for you first thing this morning, but owing to "production delays," the paper didn't arrive yesterday morning until well after ten, by which time I was rolling out the vacuum cleaner and choosing a recording of Der Rosenkavalier to accompany Saturday's domestic straightening-up. I will try not to have too much fun dismissing books that, as I know full well, took their authors years of effort to create.

Five works of fiction are featured today (18 September 2005), and five are given capsule reviews. I am thinking of reading only one of them, Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I haven't read White Teeth, although it's here somewhere; aside from a piece in Granta, I haven't read Ms Smith's work. An academic satire sounds like a good place to begin. Interestingly, the Times's culture czar, Frank Rich (and long may he reign) wrote the review.

Why Not: a swashbuckler written ages ago by Marlon Brando (you read that correctly) and Donald Cammell, Fan-Tan? This is not for me. Wickett's Remedy, by Myra Goldberg, an apparently awkward and somewhat exploitative novelization of the 1918 flu epidemic doesn't make the cut. I must confess that I didn't give The Holding, by Merilyn Simonds, a chance; the first sentence of Sue Halpern's review stopped me cold. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's memoir-thriller of summer camp in the Fifties, The Mad Cook of Pymatuning, appears to have a lot of baseball and other activities of the kind that I worked so hard to avoid so many summers ago.I must confess that I didn't give The Holding, by Merilyn Simonds, a chance; the first sentence of Sue Halpern's review stopped me cold.

Stories are embedded in the earth, issuing from rock and loam to tell what came before the visible world.

Someone else will have to take a shot at interesting me in Ms Simonds's book. As for the capsules, all written by Gregory Cowles, I will quote the words that turned me away. Wounded, by Percival Everett: "modern-day western." Infidelities, by Josip Novakovich: "11 deadpan stories." Love, Work, Children, by Cheryl Mendelssohn: a hard choice, because I kept reading the review after the first wound, "schmaltzy setup and fussy prose," all the way to the end: "A novel of manners is supposed to depict the way people navigate the rules of their society, but this one - the second in a projected trilogy - seems content to fetishize the faded standards of the past." The Every Boy, by Dana Adam Shapiro: the proximity of "coming-of-age story" and "drowned under mysterious circumstances" - both phrases referring to the boy of the title - didn't stop me. "But he leaves behind an unusual journal, color-coded and thousands of pages long, that lets his grieving, estranged parents belatedly eavesdrop on Henry's strange fixations, his developing interest in girls and his frustrated efforts to define himself." That stopped me. Thousands of pages long? I can just imagine. Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino: "Though there's no narrative to hold everything together". Chris Ware's graphic novel, The Acme Novelty Library, gets a plug, in the form of an excerpted page (too reduced to be legible, however). Chris Ware depresses the hell out of me. I take his work to be a sign of something radically wrong with the United States, or perhaps with modern Western culture altogether. To me, that something is television. I don't watch it. You oughtn't to, either.

As for nonfiction, again, there's only one book that's got my interest, Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Barbara Ehrenreich is a hero to me, so I'd buy the book just for that. But Bait and Switch has gotten some carping, mildly nasty responses. most accusing Ms Ehrenreich of capitulating (in the form of this "sequel" to Nickel and Dimed) to the corporate culture that she despises. Reviewer Alexandra Jacobs also accuses Ms Ehrenreich on looking down on her fellow aspirants for middle-management happiness, something she certainly didn't do in the earlier book. I want to see for myself if this is true. Even if it is, I think that I can understand it: the people whom Ms Ehrenreich encounters in Bait and Switch presumably enjoyed educations. We'll see.

Why Not: there's a compilation of Times articles about class in America, but I don't need to make that bonfire any bigger right now. There's a book about "Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture" that barely mentions Madonna - not that I'd have read it even if it did. There's a book about human beings and hunger to which reviewer Natalie Angier gave short shrift. There's a book by the Dalai Lama. There's a sociological study of love and money, and a biography about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, both dismally reviewed. Finally, a book that compares baseball and soccer.

The last page, a "Letter from Istanbul" by Ted Widmer," entitled "Death to the Crusaders," is about a book that I can't read, because it hasn't been translated from the Turkish. Metal Firtina ("Metal Storm"), by a science-fiction writer and a reporter, foresees an American invasion of Turkey in 2007 and concludes with the destruction of Washington, DC. It's selling like hotcakes, particularly to young men between eighteen and thirty. (If you follow the link, you'll find that the title has been changed to "Death to the Crusade.")


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