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Book Review

The late Elias Canetti has posthumously published another memoir, Party in the Blitz: The English Years (translated by Michael Hofmann). It has been given the boiling-oil treatment by Clive James.

On the threshold of death's door, Canetti saw nothing to be worried about when he examined his conscience. On this evidence, he couldn't even find it. Instead, he wrote a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions.

I'm grateful for this review not least because, for years, I've mixed up Canetti, Primo Levi, and Italo Svevo. Canetti, it appears, wasn't Italian in any way at all. I won't confuse him with anyone else ever again.

I read Joyce Carol Oates's review of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, by David Margolick. I did. It's about boxing, right? Nevertheless, I read the review, something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't undertaken this new feature. What will remain with me from Ms Oates's  piece is the fact that, while Joe Louis went on to be world famous and broke, Max Schmeling, awarded a Coca-Cola bottling license after World War II (he had never signed up with the Nazis, despite Hitler's adulation), wound up filthy rich. Ms Oates also demonstrates that prizefighting is a watcher's game. Joe Louis learned, from his mistakes in 1935, how to flatten Schmeling in the first round in 1938. But nothing about the review tempted me to rethink boxing. It still ought to be - surreptitious, like cock-fighting.

Geoffrey Wolff is full of praise for Ron Powers's Mark Twain: A Life. Twain is an exemplary American not because he captured the ambivalences of the United States before anybody else did but because he got away with doing so so well that it took critics fifty years to stop seeing stars. My personal problem is that Mark Twain reminds me of my maternal grandfather, whom I always thought of as a clever bully. So I'm much more likely to read Adam Phillips's Going Sane: Maps of Happiness. Mr Phillips - Doctor? - has a courageous faith in the curative powers of calling spades spades. He thinks that we ought to stop associating "sanity" with "zero risk." Maybe that's what our American problem is! Believing that bankers represent "sanity," we flee into excess and recklessness. Lawyer Charles R Morris, on the contrary, moonlights to produce The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J P Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. The subtitle alone tells you to stay away. The Review prints portraits of each of the four principals. Rockefeller comes off as looking - French (as in Huguenot). And Morgan is really good-looking! Of course the photo was taken before his skin disease, rosacea, blew his nose up into an unsightly appliance. Andrew Carnegie, lovingly remembered for his many New York libraries (locals had to buy the real estate first), stopped, we're told, at nothing to make his fortune. Enfin, A book for businessmen. I've held in my hands New York Burning: Liberty Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan more than a few times. Jill Lepore's look at an irrational outbreak that, numerically at least, outworsened the Salem witch trials, fifty years later, seems nevertheless to be just a tad too trendy for my taste. And there's something else: I don't like to be reminded of what a grubby outpost this island was in 1740, with the English and the Nederlanders coexisting in unseemly commerce. But it was nice of the Book Review to enlist Gotham pro Francis X Clines to write the review. Don't Get Too Comfortable, by David Rakoff,  may become indispensable, and then again it may not. Jennifer S Lee's mostly favorable review pushes the author closer to Sedaris/Vowell country.

Gary Rosen reviews Robert Wuthnow's America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity with a tone-deafness that may mirror the author's. It's a fact that most Christians don't know anything about Islam, and the same goes for everybody else, mutatis mutandis. But the differences between all "religious" people and their secular opposites always come down to the same thing: sex.

We stage protests over abortion, gay rights and stem cell research, denounce one another's views of human origins and even vote differently depending on how often we set foot in a house of worship.

When are the mainstream media going to wake up to the fact that religion, as traditionally understood, is simply not the issue? As if to make up for this dual insensitivity (writer and reviewer), M G Lord offers a provocative final essay about the feminism of Robert A Heinlein. Who'd a thunk it?

As for fiction, Eric Weinberger reviews The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. I've already bought that book, so there's nothing more to say here. John Darnton has tried to write a Rule of Four that makes the utterly lovable Charles Darwin into a nefarious villain. When will this madness stop? If you think I'm going to read Liesl Schillinger's review of Lipstick Jungle, by Candace Bushnell, and Everyone Worth Knowing, by Lauren Weisberger, you're visiting the wrong blog. Caryl Philips, writing a promising novel based on an early twentieth-century vaudevillian, Bert Willaims, gets a grudging review from Brooke Allen. Witness

Dancing in the Dark is filled with compelling factual nuggets. But when Phillips frees his imagination and exercises his license as a novelist, the book loses force.


Dancing in the Dark is riveting when it recreates mores and social conventions our culture has done its best to forget, but Phillips's portrait of Bert Williams is not very convincing.

I know that I ought to take Stephen Metcalf's review of Rick Moody's The Diviners more seriously. But one quoted passage from the novel itself was all that  it took to preclude this book from my reading list: 

Light upon all these trenches and all these scars and striations of ocean floor marking the subduction of tectonic plates, where the molten earth bubbles up and makes its presence known in the indigo surface of the ocean.

Oh, dear, no. (Adorno?)

Two really serious novelists have offerings this week, and I can't do justice to either. Francine Prose's is about Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I may be too young for this book, or I may be wishing that Arthur Danto had written it. I'm having, it's true, a bad time with "homoeroticism" these days; I can't figure out what it means. I mean, men are as gorgeous as women, and why not? What's the problem? As for J M Coetzee's Slow Man, I have sort of made a point of not reading Mr Coetzee ever since someone gave me Michael K. This country that I live in is too screwed up for me to be taking on South Africa as well.  

If I've overlooked a nephew's reverent portrait of a gangland uncle, Blood Relation, by Eric Konsigsberg, well, that's because it's very late. You didn't think I was waiting for Sunday to write this, did you?  


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Wow, that's an awful lot of content. My brief comment: I have always been interested in Canetti, partly because his first name is my middle name, partly because of the curiosity I always have about the odd culture of Sephardic Jews, and partly because his brother Jacques was a prodigious music producer in France, working on a number of Gainsbourg albums, among others. Once at Nynex, I worked with a Canetti cousin or nephew, who was astonished when I had heard of his lineage.

But I never read him.

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