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Book Review

Joan Didion stars in this week's Book Review. Not only does her new book, The year of Magical Thinking, get a cover story, written by poet Robert Pinsky, but there's Rachel Donadio's three-page interview (sort of) as well. I'll be buying a copy of the book tomorrow night at Barnes & Noble, after Ms Didion's reading, so that's that as far as this entry is concerned. The other book that I'm not going to talk about here - because I've already read it - is Leslie Savan's Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever. In a textbook case of editorial prejudice, this book was given to PJ O'Rourke to review. Once funny, Mr O'Rourke is now a crabby, dyspeptic Republican who can be counted upon to complain about anything. Assigning the book to him was the work of someone who wanted to see Ms Savan's interesting book panned. It's that simple. Stay tuned.

Other non-fiction reviews include A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester. I have stayed away from Mr Winchester, guided perhaps by magical thinking. His book about the madman and the OED looked 'way too cute. Reviewer Bryan Burrough is deadly about Crack:  

If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.

Ouch! Mr Burrough softens up later, conceding that the book might have been more appealing under a less objective title, but I wouldn't be reading it anyway. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, the author of the best-selling Stiff, looks like a good read for readers interested in cranks. Of whom I am not one. Lynn Freed's memoir of the impact of her South African upbringing upon her writing life, Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home is a book that I might have been drawn to had anyone but fashion writer Holly Brubach reviewed it; Ms Brubach contrives to endow the book with a ghastly self-satisfaction. Two history books, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C Mann, and Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850, by Maya Jasanoff,  would be welcome if there were not too many books and too little time. Ms Jasanoff's premise appears to be that imperialism manifested itself not just in authoritarian control but in the quasi art of collecting. In this view, the great museums of the West are the repository of hunting trophies. This is an intriguing idea.

And yet we might ask what they really learned, those crowds that gazed upon the lot stacked in the British Museum or upon the Belzoni's Egyptian Hall in Picadilly. More than ever, Europeans saw themselves at the center of the civilized word. That, after all, is the grand illusion empire tends to breed.

This would have been nicer if reviewer Mark Mazower had taken cognizance of the fact that today's happier minds understand that the civilized world has no center at all. Both his review and Ms Jasanoff's book are exponents of cultural repentance. Finally, in Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, Frans de Waal, according to Temple Grandin ("a person with autism"), plays the Mars/Venus game by lining up humanity with its two closest cousins, the hardy but patriarchal chimpanzees and the affectionate but stress-averse bonobos. I was not surprised to learn that

When bombs fell on Munich during World War II, de Waal tells us, all the bonobos died of heart failure, but all the chimps survived.

Ms Grandin's review seems to capture everything that is important about Mr de Waal's book, if you know what I mean.

This week's fiction includes novels by Joyce Carol Oates (Missing Mom), who is not on my list, and by Neil Gaiman (Anansi Boys), who is probably never going to be not on my list. The difference between these positions is that I have actually read something by Ms Oates - Them - and hated it. (The juxtaposition of lurid situations and lifeless writing was really revolting.) Of Mr Gaiman's writing I may die an innocent man. Charles Taylor's review might be somewhat less than coherent, but I can tell well enough that Mr Gaiman is not my sort of writer.

The tales of Anansi outwitting his foes leave you feeling you've eaten something heavy and sugary. There's an Uncle Remus folksiness to the stories that sends the airy blitheness of the farce plummeting down to earth.

There is another novel about Oz by Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked. This one, Son of a Witch, is about Elphaba's little boy, Liir. Sophie Harrison's review makes me wonder why the book was covered by the Book Review at all. It seems to be nothing more than another piece of best-selling metapop, and Ms Harrison doesn't seem to realize that it ought to have been tackled as a Guilty Pleasure - Judith Krantz for the bookish. Just because it's a book and you have to read it doesn't make it okay. Lucy Ellman inflicts a brutal review upon The Pagoda in the Garden, by Wendy Lesser. Two snippets:

This book by the author of the Threepenny Review is like a novel-writing kit: inside are a few rudimentary characters, plot lines in need of development, the choice of three possible eras and three writing styles, bags of banal banter, a small assortment of intellectual interjections and the bare bones of jokes. Not bothering to read the instructions, Wendy Lesser has excitedly dumped all this stuff straight on to the page. She'll be painting by numbers next!

Think that's bad? Try this:

Lesser also laughs at her own jokes, presenting her charmless heroines as witty and alerting us to any "levity," as she stiffly calls it, that may have issued from them.

I don't know enough about Lucy Ellman to gauge the O'Rourkitude of having asked her to review this novel, but I'm glad that my name isn't Wendy Lesser.

Five novels get capsule treatment in Chelsea Cain's "Fiction Chronicle." They all sound ideal for a convalescent. There are two Anitas, Shreve and Diamant, writers whom I've wondered about but never gotten to know; Ms Shreve seems to occupy territory adjacent to Joanna Trollope's. I would have to have been weakened by a serious illness to get through anything by Stephen King, a fabricator who knows that most people, sadly, want to get the story without having to read it. Martha Southgate's Third Girl From the Left may well be a worthy novel, but I reject the proposition that "there's just about nothing cooler than a soul sister in 1970's Los Angeles." Kim Ponders's The Art of Uncontrolled Flight appears to be the novelization her experience as "one of the first women to fly in a war zone." If someone I trusted recommended it, I'd read it in a heartbeat.

James Atlas's essay about biography, "My Subject, Myself," compares the different approaches to biography that prevail on either side of the Pond. The Americans produce monumental and apparently objective tomes that document their subjects' every laundry list. The British are more casual and familiar, and they rely on the much better term, "Life." What a difference there is between The Life of Johnson and "the biography of Samuel Johnson." Not ever British biographer has been in the room with his or her subject in the way that Boswell was, but you wouldn't know it from the easy tone of books such as Eminent Victorians. Mr Atlas ventures a suggestion about the difference between Here and There that adds to my evidence for the proposition that Americans are Germans who speak English:

To begin with, our literary culture is hindered by a division-of-labor mentality that fails to encourage the versatility and sophisticated amateurism so natural to the English temperament.

Conscience obliges me to return to Brian Burrough's bad review of Simon Winchester's book. The piece could easily be read as a critique of blogging itself, or at least of blogging as I pursue it.

At the risk of appearing doctrinaire, I have trouble saying what this book actually is. It is not a memoir, a geology text or a narrative history, though it contains elements of all three. Rather, it seems to be Winchester's ruminations on things already researched by others, wrapped in lectures on geological arcana. It's the kind of book where an author spreads the paint around - that is, goes wandering down endless back alleys in hopes of finding something interesting, or at least a Halibut Bay oyster. Sometimes Winchester finds a nugget, a metaphoric lost wallet. Other times he spends page after page sorting through garbage.

I'll bear this in mind.


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"The Art of Uncontrolled Flight" is worth reading. I hope you give it a try. Check out the Washington post review. Tough but fair.
Thanks for the words.
Kim Ponders' husband,


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