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Book Review

Making my life easier, the Book Review spouts quite a few good reviews this week. Because this feature is about the books that I don't plan to read, I don't have to say much about the ones that I do. I'd have read Walter Kirn's Mission to America no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it, and Mark Costello's piece on Karen Olsson's Waterloo pricked my ears to a new voice. Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning gets a discouraging review from Andrew Solomon, of all people, so I'll have to see what other people say. A collection of stories, In Case We're Separated, by Alice Mattison, sounds interesting, if perhaps a bit Too Jewish. Rachel Cusk's In The Fold looks like a book that I'll have to examine at Barnes & Noble for the quality of the sentences; Ada Calhoun's favorable review doesn't tell me what I need to know. The Other Shulman, by Alan Zweibel, and Seven Lies, by James Lasdun, reviewed by Neil Genzlinger and Ken Kalfus respectively, are the only two works of fiction that I can cross off with ease. Shulman is about an impossible middle-aged man, and Lies appears to be misconceived.

As for non-fiction, there are several inviting books. There's Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. This may be the book that will relieve of confirm my misgivings about Alison Weir, a writer who has managed, without my having read a word of her prose, to strike me as a romance novelist posing as an historian. The Isabella in question is not the famous Spanish duarch but the mother of Edward III of England, whose descent would spark the Hundred Years' War - the most unnecessary military engagement that I've ever heard of. Also interesting is Summer Doorways, a memoir by poet W S Merwin. Tempting but not tempting enough are J Anthony Froude: The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian, by Julia Markus (covered by Walter Olson) and White Savage: Williiam Johnson and the Invention of America, by Fintan O'Toole (Caleb Crain). I'm eternally grateful to Mr Olson for attesting that "Froude" rhymes with "food," but the subtitle is, in the end, far too desperate. As for William Johnson, he was a pre-Revolutionary Irishman who consorted among the Mohawk; that's two strikes right there. Alana Newhouse's review of The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kinderstransport and Growing Up English, by Edith Milton, left me wondering what my women friends will make of the book; ditto Louise Jarvis Flynn's review of Holly Morris's Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine.

Do I want to read about Theodore Roosevelt's expedition up the River of Doubt? No. So Candice Millard's book is not on my list, despite Bruce Barcott's good review. I've said it before and I'll say it again: my idea of "roughing it" is staying at home.

There are three "important" titles in this week's Review. The one that I may buy is Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery, by Helen Vendler. If there's anyone who can save verse for me, it's Helen Vendler. I still haven't finished her last book, Coming of Age as a Poet, and I've never given Shakespeare's sonnets the attention that she claims for them, but I'm still (just) open to the argument that "poetry" is primarily found in "verse." I'll probably feel guilty about not reading Jed Perl's New Art City, a study of New York's colossal role in the unfolding of modern art, and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt. John Updike's lavish review of Mr Perl's book, however, failed to persuade me that modernism is worth thinking about; more and more it seems to be no more than a bad dream from which we shall all soon awaken. And I haven't forgotten Mr Perl's opinion of painter John Currin. Mr Judt's essays in The New York Review of Books, notable as they are, have convinced me that he is somebody whom I should heartily dislike were I to meet him: if there's one type of person I can't stand to be in the same room with, it's a highly literate Man's Man. Anthony Gottlieb's review manages to cast little light on the book itself, but I decided against Postwar, ironically I suppose, while reading Alan Ryan's review in the NYRoB. The following sentence did it:

One might take a more generous view. It was, among other things, a time when large numbers of people, women particularly - and women do not get very close attention in Postwar - began to ask whether the prosperity of the previous decade had brought them commensurate happiness.

The last-page Essay, by Jonathan Tepperman, is about foreign-policy books. It contrasts the Big Idea offerings of Natan Sharansky and Niall Ferguson with Realist offerings by Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinsky, and Nancy Soderberg. Mr Tepperman is almost as impatient with the former as I am.

After 9/11, the president seemed to fall for the big idea. The intervening years, however, have not been kind to his black-and-white idealism. Maybe it's time to bring back boring, and put big ideas back on the bookshelf.



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