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Book Review

Note: The freshman-orientation intensity of this year's The New Yorker Festival has left your correspondent prostrate. Nevertheless, his determination and commitment to this new feature of the Daily Blague has kept him at his desk for nearly two hours of unremitting funk. He thanks Handel for the violin sonatas that have made the work proceed more comfortably than it would have done otherwise. He is glad that you could not hear his continual whining of Do I have to?

There's a lot of interesting stuff in the Book Review this week, but nothing that calls out to me for instant purchase. In fiction, there E L Doctorow's The March, reviewed by Walter Kirn. The March is an historical novel that recounts the horrors of Sherman's march through Georgia in 1864. Mr Doctorow is not on my list; I haven't read anything since Ragtime, which I found irritatingly spotted with anachronisms. But Mr Kirn's review has a lot of interesting things to say about war, and I hope that it will appear in a collection of the writer's non-fiction.

Of the other fiction covered, only two novels seemed to be of any interest, and then not much. These are 26a, by Diana Evans: about the unraveling of intimacy between the twin daughters of a mixed marriage (set in London); and Vita, by Melania G Mazzuco (translated by Virginia Jewiss): a contemporary Italian writer utilizes surviving documents to recreate the immigrant experiences of young siblings in the New York of a century ago; evidently, at least one of their descendants returned to the South of Italy. Sven Birkerts observes,

In truth, fiction and nonfiction belong to separate spheres: we process them differently, projecting via fancy with the one, weighing and judging with the other. Taken together, they can cerate problems. Late in the novel, for example, against all storytelling wisdom, Mazzucco tells us how things finally worked out for Vita and Diamante, in a storke robbing the final chapters of all natural suspense. Here her two engines are one too many.

I so completely disagree with Mr Birkerts's "separate spheres" doctrine that I'm tempted to read Vita just to see if those last chapters are made disappointing by prior revelations. Alas, where would I find the time to conduct such an experiment?

The big book on the non-fiction side is Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work, which reviewer Michael Gorra pronouces "the best contemporary introduction" to its subject. There are also two new additions to the Library of America, both collections of the work of James Agee. (Film Writing and Selected Journalism and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction - both edited by Michael Sragow.) I am tempted to buy the first volume, because Agee is often held out as the first important film critic; but I suspect, on the basis of remarks about Preston Sturges and Jean Arthur quoted in the review, that I would find the author to be unsympathetic. John Leonard uses the review as an occasion for sketching Agee's reckless life, and I once again registered that Agee's careless excessiveness in the booze and nicotine departments may be more interesting than his writing; his example makes an alluring memento mori.

There should have been so much more that he never wrote. He didn't because he couldn't. From blackouts to coronary thrombosis i not one of the 12 steps. He ought to have paid more attention, if not to his worried doctors, then to his own review of The Lost Weekend, which spoke of "the workings of the several minds inside a drinker's brain," "the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable," "the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable" and "the sudden annihilating loneliness and fear of God."

There is also Garrison Keillor's review of a biography of the even briefer self-destructive career of country music star Hank Williams, who died, astonishingly, at the age of twenty-nine (Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill). And Tracy Kidder's memoir of serving as a second lieutenant in Vietnam (My Detachment). Verlyn Klinkenborg almost chastises Mr Kidder for his earnestness.

But there is something else at work here, too. By being tough on his young self, Kidder knows, I think, that no one will laugh too hard at the man he used to be, who would have been wounded most by laughter. And yet if you refract the irony of this memoir a little differently, the result is high comedy. This absurdly earnest young man is guilty of not much more than being young and absurd. From time to time, he imagines a movie camera tracking his motions. If he were a more sympathetic director, the audience would be rolling in the aisles.

If I thought that Mr Klinkenborg and I were on the same wave-length, I would get a copy of My Detachment on the strength of that passage alone.

Also covered are books about the great explorers of Western history (Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, by Fergus Fleming), mounting poorism in American schools (The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), the romance of nocturnal Gotham (New York Night: The Mystique and its History, by Mark Caldwell), counting cards and beating the market (Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, by William Poundstone), and Nancy Drew (Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak; yes, Virginia, Carolyn Keene had multiple personalities). Nicholson Baker and his wife, Margaret Brentano, have compiled a selection of graphic art from The World, Joseph Pulitzer's populist newspaper: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911). Reviewer Jonathan Mahler reminds us that rescuing the last remaining complete collection of original issues of The World from dispersal on eBay is one of the sometimes quixotic-seeming projects that Mr Baker has thrown himself into; since the collection was eventually housed at Duke, I wonder what kind of library catalogue they keep there.

Finally, Adam Goodheart wonders if the world that welcomed John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might not have turned a few too many revolutions to take a matching interest in the gratin of Venice and the incineration of the city's recently-reopened opera house, La Fenice ("the phoenix"). To me, the most memorable thing about the earlier book is the statue of the Bird Girl, reproductions of which I see in catalogue after catalogue. In other words, I don't remember a thing, not really - although Mr Goodheart refreshed my memory. John Berendt is an almost hypnotic storyteller, but when you snap out of the spell, the stories lose their interest.

I can't even think about, much less read, Nora Krug's essay, "The Corrections," which is about the sloppy state of book editing today. I'm still trying to gel my recollection of Jonathan Franzen's voice, which I heard in person on Friday night. Ms Krug's subject is of great interest to me, however, and I'll let you what she has to say when I pull myself together.


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