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Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Who is Scarlet Thomas? I don't believe that I've registered her name before - possibly because of the "Scarlet" thing. That may change. Dee Mondschein's review of Ms Thomas's PopCo sounds very interesting. So does Fatema Ahmed's review of Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a collection of stories on Chinese and Chinese-American themes. Otherwise, there's no fiction of interest this week. Two silly-sounding books about growing up privileged, The Inheritance, by Annabel Dilke (reviewed by Sarah Ferguson), and Nothing Serious, by Justine Lévy (translated by Charlotte Mandell and reviewed by Judith Warner), share page 18.  Mary Gaitskell's Veronica is a book about fashion victims and their predators that, according to Meghan O'Rourke, "constitutes some of the most incisive fiction writing around." But I read and disliked Bad Behavior, the author's first book, and Ms Gaitskell is no longer on my list. Salman Rushdie is not on my list, either. I read The Satanic Verses in a state of boggled cluelessness: why was this book being talked about? In case I have not said so lately, I'll repeat that I loathe "magic realism." I loathe it the way patriarchs loathe their wives' infidelity, and for much the same reasons. Consorting in public with the imaginable but the impossible is disgusting. So I rather guiltily enjoyed Laura Miller's quietly savage review of Mr Rushdie's latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. Even if I were open to the opportunities of Mr Rushdie's fiction, I might well be put off by the following cracks:

(A novel that affects to gossip worshipfully about its own characters is a tiresome thing indeed.)

Rushdie has no gift for pastoralism and he evokes the fabled natural beauties of Kashmir as if he were a man who knew them primarily through the medium of embroidery motifs.

Perhaps this thinness results from Rushdie's being essentially a comic writer, directed to less congenial themes by history of ambition, a commedia dell'arte player cast in a tragedy. The invention of grand or profound characters doesn't come naturally to him....

While I was reading this, I was musing on the fact that Shalimar hadn't followed in the footsteps of other novels by Mr Rushdie, in storming the Book Review's front page. What we have on the front page instead is Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof's review of Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors, who are married, have devoted their work to the cause of completely demythologizing Mao Zedong. Even Mr Kristof thinks that they might have gone too far! That's the funny part. For split thinking, compare

And Mao says some remarkable things about the peasants he was supposed to be championing. When they were starving in the 1950's, he instructed: "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest ... to prevent peasants eating too much." In Moscow, he offered to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half of the population at the time, and in 1958 he blithely declared of the overworked population: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die."


I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform... [blah blah blah]

"That side"? Can monsters have "good sides"? I think not. I doubt that I'll read this book, simply because I have already arrived at the authors' conclusions by other means, but I do recommend it.

Two new books about Shakespeare are reviewed by John Simon, perhaps our most acerbic critic. He likes them both, though. Of Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography and James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, he writes,

Needless to say, there is a good deal of overlapping, as there must be, but nobody who has read the one will fail to find pleasure and profit in the other.

But all I could think while reading the review was that surely its more important to read Shakespeare than to read about him. There ought to be a rule: for every hour that you spend on books about the Bard, you must spend ten actually reading what he actually wrote himself. In the late Spalding Gray's Life Interrupted: The Unifinished Monologue, you get to do both, authorwise; according to Charles Isherwood, this posthumous publication includes essays by friends of the noted storyteller as well as a draft of the monologue that he was working on when he died. Gray's suicide, sadly, was not a surprise; the surprise is that Abraham Lincoln didn't throw himself off the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of winter. According Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, this country's number-two president was inspired by a mental disorder to achieve greatness. Reviewer Patricia Cohen isn't convinced, and neither am I.

And while depressives may be politically acute, creative and spiritual, they don't have a monopoly on these attributes.

There are two books about ancient history. One is poet Robert Pinsky's The Life of David. Reviewer William Deresiewicz writes,

That David was himself a poetry turns out to be secondary. In fact, disappointingly, Pinsky spends little time on his subject's poetic achievement. Instead, he uses the biblical account, supplemented in places by legendary and rabbinic material, to make David present to the reader in a way the Bible cannot do.

The wrongheadedness of this exercise amazes me. It's not unlike reading about Shakespeare instead of reading Shakespeare himself. Whatever the real King David was like - if there was such a man - the Bible severely distorts his career for tendentious purposes that were conceived long after his death. To use such "materials" to compose a snapshot analysis of an historical figure is preposterous. I'm reminded that Israeli archeologists have disappointed their compatriots, not for lack of trying, by failing to produce the slightest evidentiary support for the grand things that Scripture says about David and Solomon.

The other history book, while rather more reality-based, seems even more determined to make a case. Paul Johnson writes that Victor Davis Hanson's A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War is aimed squarely at believers in American superpowers. Mr Johnson wants all of us to read the book, because

Americans, fortunate in their power and prosperity, have many unavoidable responsibilities in the world, and in discharging them should study the past, even the remote past, to find any guidance it has to offer.

I feel a choice coming on. Either I can let that stand, or I can burst in a shower of arguably unpatriotic remarks. Perhaps I can simply say that the guidance that Mr Johnson seeks for Americans is not going to come from case studies.

Part of me would really like to read Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall. Tim Folger's review makes this daunting title appear to be very approachable. If I were younger, I'd take it on. And I may take it on yet. But not on the strength of coverage in the Book Review. My life already has too many dimensions.

The concluding essay really deserves a separate entry. Elizabeth Royte's "Publish and Perish," a sort of twelve-step guide to the agonies of a newly-published author. It concludes with a remark by writer John Seabrook.

"The beginning of acceptance," Seabrook said, "is when you realize that the reason your book isn't in bookstores isn't because it's sold out. It's not there because the store never ordered it in the first place."



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I will comment about "Veronica" when I finally get around to reading it.

Also, you failed to mention Rob Walker's "Letters from New Orleans." I am very interested in reading it and would encourage everyone to read it as well. DB book club?

How embarrassing. Perhaps I ought to omit one book every week just to make it look deliberate. This week it was two, and Ms NOLA caught both.

DB Book Club for Letters from New Orleans? Sounds great. I'll announce it after further discussion.

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