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Book Review

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

Before I look at this week's Book Review, I want to say that the author of one of the books that I dismissed last week wrote to me to suggest that I reconsider. As it happened, I was in no position to refuse, and I'm very grateful for his persistence, as his book is a great read. I hope to discuss this further on Tuesday. For the moment, I want you all to know that I am an ardent flip-flopper when it comes to revising ignorant assessments.

Fiction first. There are four novels this week, as well as Garrison Keillor's collection, Good Poems for Hard Times, reviewed by David Orr. My own feelings about verse have gone through something of an earthquake this month, but although I'm pretty sure that I would be impatient with many of Mr Keillor's selections, I can't see any reason not to acquire this book if your library, or, as is more likely, someone else's, is bereft of poetry books. It looks like a sound beginning. Unless you're in school, and in a position to be forced to read poetry for your own good - and I often think that what Dr Johnson said about teaching Latin to small boys applies to poetry as well - then you're going to have to like what you read before you'll read more, and Good Poetry for Hard Times appears to be chock full of likeable poems. Ideally, readers will eventually tire of easy satisfactions - but only ideally.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D, California) has concocted a political novel, about a senator's successful bid to block the nomination of a conservative Supreme Court nominee, written with Mary-Rose Hayes. The Wonkette herself, Ana Marie Cox, does not think much of the result. The quoted passages are all wooden at best, and, as for politics, here's Ms Cox's closing: "Conservatives like to charge that liberals have no new ideas. Unfortunately, A Time to Run seems to prove them right. Mother's Milk, by Edward St Aubyn, is the second number in what looks to be a series of novels about an aristocratic English family on the way down. I recall that reviews of the first entry, Some Hope, characterized Mr St Aubyn as an exponent of disagreeable dyspepsia, and Charles McGrath's review gives me no reason to revise this impression.

Churlish and irritable, suffering through what he calls "this rather awkward mezzo del camin thing," Patrick is in fact just a notch or two from falling into ordinary middle-classness, and fastens on the one vestige of his family's more distinguished past - the house in Provence. Even that proves to be a fragile bulwark, however, as over the course of the novel it's slowly wrenched from its grasp.

Mr McGrath suggests that Edward St Aubyn is a successor to Anthony Powell, but I see none of the late writer's clear and decidedly not irritable grace here.

Marlon James's, debut novel, John Crow's Devil, looks interesting. Set in the author's native Jamaica in 1957, it recounts the struggle between rival preachers and their adherents. According to reviewer James Polk, it is written "with assurance and control." At the other end of experience, we have Albanian writer Ismail Kadare's The Successor (translated from the French by David Bellos). Reviewer Lorraine Adams provides a useful introduction to Mr Kadare's fiction, and notes that the author won the first Man Booker International Prize earlier this year. The Successor appears to be a historical novel of sorts about twisted relationship between the late Albanian strongman, Enver Hoxha, and his heir apparent, Mehmet Shedu.

This novel finds its truth in the imagined words of a dead man, setting the individual over the many. It valorizes the imagination by arguing that the truth of man is not always found in what he does or says but in his numinous interior, the place all great literature celebrates.

I have no plans to run out and buy any of these novels, but I'd probably try to get to them if they materialized in one of my increasingly Borgesian stacks.

Sure things: I'm going to get Sean Wilentz's The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. I didn't need Gordeon S Wood's lengthy and enthusiastic review to decide that this is a Must Read. I hope that everyone will find time for Mr Wilentz's massive tome, which, as Mr Wood suggests, might better be taken in three big doses. There is a lot for all of us to learn about just how democracy flourished in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century - and at what cost. Another sure thing is that I'm not going to bother with Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? When Sexes Collide. Ms Dowd writes pithy columns for the Times that all too often put wit ahead of substance, and I, for one, will never quite forgive her for her treatment of Bill Clinton. The Times Magazine offered us a taste of Are Men Necessary a few weeks ago. It's certainly true that millions American men have a long way to go on the way to Growing Up, but I doubt that Ms Dowd's book will inspire a single one of them to get a move on. It's possible that Maureen Dowd ought to give up on books altogether. As Kathryn Harrison points out, 

Consumed over a cup of coffee, 800 words provide Dowd the ideal length to call her readers' attention to the ephemera at hand that may reveal larger trends and developments. But smart remarks are reductive and anti-ruminative; not only do they not encourage deeper analysis, they stymie it. 

Nor am I going to pick up Kenneth Chong's somewhat knuckleheaded Neil Young Nation: A Quest, an Obsession (and a True Story). According to reviewer Gary Kamiya, Mr Chong got into his car and drove to lots of places, many of them without any other significance, that Neil Young visited on his tours and other travels. I'll just listen to "Southern Man." It was with some relish that I lapped up Marcia Bartusiak's review of Dava Sobel's The Planets. But looking it over, I see that it is actually a favorable review.

Unlike Sobel's previous works...The Planets isn't a straight science book or a strict history book or memoir but a frothy blend of all these forms. In one chapter, Sobel entertains us with Galileo's horoscope (which predicted he would travel far), moves to a discussion of Gustav Holst's symphonic tribute to the planets, and then artfully describes how the Cassini spacecraft reached Saturn last year and soared through a gap in the planet's legendary rings.

I've no doubt whatever about the froth. I found Longitude to be among the emptiest books that it had ever been my misfortune to read. In response to my complaint that the book completely neglected any discussion of the actual mechanics of Harrison's chronometer, a friend replied that I probably wouldn't have understood it, to which I could only say, "Try me." At least show me where my ignorance lies! That's what Ms Sobel specializes in not doing, which undoubtedly explains her success. An easy read about something as, well, colossal as our planetary system can only contribute to reader's easy but false sense of knowingness. Together with Galilieo's Daughter, these books by Dava Sobel have consistently failed to do what they ought to have done: open new wings in the reader's mind. Instead, they merely stuff cozy and familiar corners of mens cognita. Ms Bartusiak actually uses the adjective, "cozy."

According to reviewer Joel Slemrod, neither The Fairtax Book: Saying Goodbye to the Income Tax and the IRS, by Neal Boortz and John Linder, nor Flat Tax Revolution: Using a Postcard to Abolish the IRS, by Steve Forbes, rises promising that tax reform will deliver a free lunch. Mr Slemrod sensibly writes,

These books, to use the language on the jacket of Flat Tax Revolution, are calls to join a crusade. We'd be better of just starting a conversation.

I had learned, from John Keegan's Penguin Life, Winston Churchill, that The Second World War was written with a lot of outside help, but I didn't know that Churchill's helpers were called "The Syndicate." In In Command of History: Chuirchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, David Reynolds demonstrates how little of the six-volume opus was written by Churchill himself, but far from disparaging the putative author, Mr Reynolds admires him all the more. According to Max Boot,

In the end, Reynolds's respect for Churchill as writer and statesman appears undiminished by the lengths to which he went to shape his own reputation.

For while Churchill may have distorted countless facts in the burnishing of his reputation, those errors are largely correctible by professional historians, and we are left with a not-inconsiderable statement of Churchill's beliefs and objectives. Mr Reynolds's book will probably prove to be a good test of readers' Great Man sympathies. Those who resist the attractions of authority and leadership, even when it is well exercised by benevolent minds, will probably dismiss Churchill as an aging fraud. To me, he remains the most magnificent example of Statesman from my lifetime, such that his faults and misjudgments contribute to his greatness, if only because they teach me not to expect perfection. But I had better read The Second World War before turning to Mr Reynolds.

There are three minor histories under review this week. The Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, by James Horn, is, according to Russell Shorto, an admirable if plodding attempt to replace the Virginia colony's story alongside that of the New England Puritans, as a foundation story of the United States. The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr, "reads better than a thriller," writes reviewer Bruce Handy. It's about the rediscovery of Caravaggio's Taking of Christ, a much-copied 1603 painting that, with the languishing of Caravaggio's reputation (not reversed until after World War II), slipped into oblivion. It sounds like a book to read on vacation in Rome. Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art: the Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks is Diana Souhami's celebration of lesbian life, then and now it seems. Americans Barney and Brooks, both born at the end of the nineteenth century, met in Paris in 1915, and remained a couple of sorts for fifty-five years, having more than a few wild times along the way. Indeed, Ada Calhoun's review has me imagining a WASPy counterpart to the Stein-Toklas ménage, substituting exuberance for intensity. I'll be delighted to know what any of you make of these books.

In a Nonfiction Chronicle, Susannah Meadows covers five books, at least one of which, Paula Fox's The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe, would seem to have merited its own review. Ms Meadows doesn't say so, but this would seem to be a sequel to Ms Fox's gripping Borrowed Finery. An "artist of omission," Paula Fox works amazing tricks with shadows, and I look forward to The Coldest Winter. James E McWilliams's A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America will, Ms Meadows's surmises, will prove "either unfortunately heavy or pleasingly filling, depending on your taste. Either way, the prose is shamelessly unexciting." Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers, by Shashi Tharoor, is little more than a piece of self-promotion. "Tharoor achieves new levels of self-satisfaction..." Similarly, Diary of a Drag Queen, by Daniel Harris, which is about the author's decision, at the age of forty-six and notwithstanding the fact that stiletto heels made him six-foot-seven-inches tall, to take up cross-dressing, left Ms Meadows "feeling that the whole thing was just an exercise for the book." One can just imagine Mr Harris's conversation with this agent. Finally, Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and Their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese 1941-1945, by John A Glusman, "is a chaotic, undisciplined, seriously flawed, and wonderful book." One of those.

In Jesus Land: A Memoir, Julia Scheeres tells a harrowing tale. The daughter of Christian fundamentalists who, in addition to their own three children adopted three more, among them two black boys, whom they treat entirely differently from their white wards. Jesus Land is about the bond that grew between one of them, David, and the author. Such was her devotion to David's welfare that she followed him to an evangelical reform school in the Dominican Republic - an establishment doubtless operated on principles that would be illegal in the United States. If Ms NOLA recommends this book to me, I shall read it, I promise.

The subject of A O Scott's Essay, "Medal Fatigue," is The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, by James F English. Mr Scott, who reviews film for the Times, is called upon annually to make predictions about the most well-known of prizes, and I don't mean the Nobels, and he's more than a little intrigued by Mr English's finding, which he summarizes thus:

In other words, prizes flourish to the extent that they are not taken seriously, but this does not mean they are all a big joke. Rather, they exist in a limbo of anxiety and uncertainty about the status of artistic and intellectual endeavor in a global consumer economy. We assume - we know - that art and thought have value, but we lack agreed-upon means to measure that value, so we come up with tools that are transparently and grandly inadequate to the task. Prestige, that is, functions as a poor substitute for even less tangible attributes; it is not necessarily the same as excellence, but it is not necessarily not the same. It is not ratified by commercial success, except on those occasions when it is. And prizes sometimes do go to the best candidates, which are sometimes (and sometimes not) also the most popular.

Mr Scott doesn't mention the possibility that the awarding of prizes is a fine pretext for muckety-muck banquets.

Pages 17 through 48 of this week's Book Review are given over to books for children.


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