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Book Review

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

Fiction this week is not very alluring. I must confess to a dislike of any literature that remotely partakes of "magic realism." This renders me unfit to say anything about Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Marquez, except that I'm not going to read it. Terrence Rafferty's review is somewhere between enthusiastic and respectful. At least in Bliss Broyard's account, Benjamin Markovits's novel, Fathers and Daughters would not be a book to look forward to if it were in my pile. Mr Markovits uses the story of Lot's wife to consider "how candidly we're willing to look at ourselves and the people close to us, whether we're helped or hurt by such frank appraisals." A real question for rude, self-regarding people, perhaps, but not an issue that comes up for me. Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo doesn't come across very well either. Reviewer Susan Cokal writes,

The sheer scope of years covered in any bildungsroman can make dramatic tension difficult to sustain. Perhaps as a result, Hall's novel is short on event and long on exposition; it shows, but it tells far more.

Scott Turow - not on my list - has come out with something a little different, an intergenerational tale of a judge advocate general who manages to get court-martialed during the Battle of the Bulge, and his son's search for the truth. Joseph Kanon takes the opportunity to hail Mr Turow as "a bourgeois writer in the best sense of the word - his work is grounded in faithfully depicted realism." I'll take note. (This is not one of the Book Review's better weeks.) Finally - as if in counterpoint to Mr Rafferty's review, Lenora Howard weighs Shorts, a collection of stories by Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet (translated by Ezra E Fitz) and finds it wanting. Mr Fuguet has publicly repudiated the "boom" project of the older, now vanishing school of advanced Latin American novelists; he is much concerned with the difficulties of interaction with the North Americans. If this is a challenge to Mr García Marquez, it is not a success.

I'm tempted to claim that I found all the non-fiction titles so interesting that you'll have to wait for me to read them first. (The only books that get coverage in this space are the one's that I'm not going toread.) It has been a grinding weekend (I really do hope that this is not coming to you in Times New Roman), and I'd rather be reading Bait and Switch, which I've finally got round to. In fact, however, there are only three books that I can honestly claim to look forward to. They are Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (reviewed by Civil War historian James M McPherson); On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, by William B. Irvine (Kathryn Harrison); and America's Constitution: A Biography, by Akhil Reed Amar. As previously announced, I am not buying any more books for a while, so I can't promise to read these, but I'll be happy if somebody gives one to me for my birthday (6 January). The remaining fourteen are all off. Here's why, in one sentence or less:

¶ Reviewer William Saletan claims that John B Eisenberg, author of Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights, and briefly a lawyer in the case, is just as guilty of using the late Ms Schiavo as his targets are.

¶ According to musician Greg Sandow, Edmund Morris shouldn't be writing about music, much less trying to make the case for Beethoven.

¶ Funny man Henry Alford fails to make The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman, sound like something that I need as long as I've already got Our Dumb Century.

¶ According to reviewer Bryan Burrough, Louis Freeh's My FBI: Bringing Donw the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror (with Howard Means) is not the serious book that we had a right to expect but surprisingly "low-cal."

One feels bad criticizing a man who dedicated himself so selflessly to public service. The truth is, the nation could use more people like Louis Freeh. But that can't obscure the fact that in the end Freeh's best wasn't good enough, and neither, sadly, is his book.

¶ According to Douglas Brinkley, James R Hansen's First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong is about the celebrated astronaut. While I believe in the importance of a space-exploration program, I personally hate to fly.

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v Gore, by James T Patterson, is per se premature, notwithstanding Charles Peters's welcoming review. 

Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Lewis Stevenson, by Claire Harman, is a book that I'm just not ready for. A fan of A Child's Garden of Verses, I never read anything else by this interesting man. Under the circumstances, reading a biography would be ghoulish.

Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, by Scott Poulson-Bryant, really is about penis length. Is anybody ready for a book about this tragic subject? The review is fun, sort of, with gay novelist E Lynn Harris skirting the perils of writing about men sizing up one another's dicks (I'm sorry!) for a "family newspaper." I don't know whether to laugh or run screaming from the room.

¶ Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton doesn't, at least according to David Brooks's review, add much to a spate of interesting articles that have appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, and, most scorchingly, The New Yorker.

¶ Vikram Seth's memoir of an uncle who married a German Jew and settled down in England, Two Lives, probably does not deserve to be in this space. I have nothing to say against it. (I've read reviews other than Pankaj Mishra's and been piqued.) Don't be surprised if you find me writing about this down the road. But so far down the road that I can't count the intervening pages.

¶ Leo Damrosch's Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius may be a worthwhile study, but it's about the man whom I would place, if I were Dante, at the Very Bottom. Rousseau had a genius for telling rich and idle people what they wanted to hear. I have always been amazed by his renown.

Dean and Me: (A Love Story), By Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, reviewed by Stephanie Zacharek.

Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, by Robert M Sapolsky, is perhaps something that I ought to read, Jamie Shreeve's appealing review tells me. But I don't want to. I don't like my primate cousins much, and I think it's odd that they're sources of insight about human nature. What was anybody thinking, that studying chimps might correct?

A trifle dyspeptic, I confess. But the Book Review was a slog this weekend, and I didn't finish reading it until this morning. Characteristic of the flavor of this edition is Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Political Fictions," about novels written by politicians. I beg you. 


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