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Book Review

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

Nonfiction first, shall we? Alan Riding reviews Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation this week, exactly two months to the day after my enthusiastic entry. The call-out pretty much summarizes Mr Riding's casual grasp of Ms Craveri's important book: "It was shrewd: Parisian women invented a social game where they set all the rules." On the facing page, Jonathan Alter dismisses Mary Mapes's attempt, in Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privileges of Power, to explain away her disastrous rushing of the Texas National Guard story in last year's run-up to the election. Although the substance of the story about the President's shirking, during the Vietnamese War, was probably true, the slipshod documentation opened the door to right-wing attack. Even Dan Rather had to resign in the end. If I were Ms Mapes, I wouldn't be writing about my professional competence.

Roy Blount Jr, a funny man from the South whose humor usually eludes me, writes up Richard Porter's Crap Cars, a catalogue of the fifty worst cars ever made in modern times. Mr Porter writes with great brio, which more or less salvages his project from fatuity. According to John Leland's review of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, by Peter Guralnick, the versatile musician proves to be as elusive as the humor of writing about automotive lemons.

But like Cooke's friends and associates, we are left trying to grasp a cipher. His cool what what the art historian Robert Farris Thompson calls "the mask of mind itself." We don't know how Sam felt about the white audiences he so methodically cultivated, or the women he so tirelessly took to bed; we can't measure the anger he kept hidden.

Take my advice, and beware the shape-shifting subjects of books of 750-page lengths!

Joe Queenan takes the words out of my mouth when he places Greg Critser's Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies in the category of books announcing that "the world is going to hell in a handbasket." Mr Queenan likes the book, although his ninth paragraph kicks the book off of my list. 

Because of the dry nature of the subject, Generation Rx is unlikely to replace Harlan Coben as bedtime reading. Moreover, while some details may be new, the overall theme - doctors are on the drug industry tab, Republican legislators view regulation as Stalinist, consumers have developed an almost Incan belief in the power of chemicals, lobbyists run everything - is not. Still, the book is a lively well-told tale, chock-full of fascinating tidbits that will bring a smile to the face of even the gloomiest Gus.

Gloomy Guses ought to spend their time pondering regulatory schemes that Republican legislators would not find Stalinist, and not reading books that, while making one smile, intensify one's feeling of powerlessness.

I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir, has an interesting title, once it's explained. Rafi Zabor is a jazz drummer who grew up in Brooklyn. According to reviewer Liesl Schillinger, I, Wabenzi is a long meditation the author's reaction on two traumas, one involving an abortion and the other the care of his ailing parents. Although Ms Schillinger complains that "spontaneity is both Zabor's strength and his liability," she seems to like the book. "After all, he's riffing on nothing smaller than the human experience..." So I give this week's "You First" prize to Mr Zabor's memoir. If you read it and like it enough to recommend it to me, I'll read it, no questions asked.

It was a close call, that award. It might easily have gone to One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick. Differing from Jarhead primarily in being the work of an officer, not an enlisted man (at least as I gather from the review), Mr Fick's book is a paean to competence, and, as such, an implicit condemnation of our way of waging war in Iraq.

Witch hunts simply doesn't interest me, which is why I'm not going to read Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy, by Malcolm Gaskill. Mary Beth Norton's review fails to suggest any aspect of this new history of the Essex crusade of 1645-7, during England's Civil War, that would distinguish it from other accounts of humanity at its rock-bottom worst. Nor do I want to read about Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H W Brands. I'm with William L O'Neill: "Jackson's presidency left a lot to be desired."

In "Nonfiction Chronicle," Mark Lewis rounds up six books for short-shrift treatment. Here are the titles and, in parentheses, my reason for not reading each of them, stated succinctly.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. (misleading title; nothing new.)

The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved, by Alan Dershowitz (a certain Harvard Law professor is full both of himself and of it.

My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement, by Price M Cobbs (Second runner-up for "You First" award. A noted black psychiatrist "tries to cram six decades of his life into 249 pages, and they won't fit.")

Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America, by Cass R Sunstein (I need to read about to find out?)

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons, by Samantha Barbas. (Ew.)

The Tulip and the Pope, by Deborah Larsen. (Third runner-up. Hey, I think I've found something. This week's most interesting sentence appears in this review: "Now a writer herself, [Larsen] recalls for us an era when life in a nunnery, for many women, was the only counterculture available.")

Three books that I'd like to read are Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs (reviewed by Curtis Sittenfeld, who cautions that this is not a book with which to approach Woolf's life for the first time); Geoff Dyer's book about photography, The Ongoing Moment (Richard B Roundwood writes that Mr Dyer "pulls off a string of shrewd, often original ideas ... about a group of artists whose work had until now seemed thoroughly digested); and The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate by Marjorie Williams, edited by Williams's husband, Timothy Noah (Williams comes off as an uncommonly appealing writer).

There are two books of or about poetry this week, and this will allow me to cross from "Nonfiction" to "Fiction and Poetry." Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker editor and poet, reviews two books about poet Jane Kenyon and Kenyon's Collected Poems. One of the "about" books is The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, by Kenyon's husband, poet Donald Hall; the other is Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon, edited by Joyce Peseroff. The handful of examples of Kenyon's poetry are attractive, but since I'm in the middle of trying to come to grips with John Ashbery - probably by relaxing my grip - I beg to be excused. Nor can I take on Don Chiasson's Natural History, a collection of apparently feverishly hip poems. I'm not sure how to take reviewer Kay Ryan's last line, "It's the strangest thing how poetry that matters can be just an elephant's hair away from poetry that doesn't. Somebody at the Times must like Mr Chiasson, however, because his picture graces the review. Interestingly, it is a portrait; the photograph of Jane Kenyon shows her hard at work at the typewriter.

Gregory Cowles covers four novels in his "Fiction Chronicle." As is my wont, I provide the line from the review that made up my mind not to read each given title.

If The Sky Falls: Stories, by Nicholas Montemarano. ("...remarkable stories are united by their dyspeptic outlook and not much else...")

A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj. ("In the end, the book is like a music box: it's charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship, but you know more artful versions of the song exist.")

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, written and illustrated by Walter Moers, and translated by John Brownjohn. ("...further evidence ... that the Germans like their entertainment goofy and a bit bloated.")

The Mercy of Thin Air, by Ronlyn Domingue. ("Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well to pick up a newspaper instead.")

The Elagin Affair: And Other Stories, by Ivan Punin, and translated by Graham Hattlinger. ("his writing veers between the melodramatic and the merely mellow.")

Of the four fictions given full treatment, Absolute Watchmen, by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons is an expensive comic book that Dave Itzoff didn't sell me on. Karoo Boy, Troy Blacklaws's apparently autobiographical account of enduring teen-aged hell in the "vast, desiccated hinterland" of South Africa known as the Karoo, thirty years ago, is making its first appearance here in paper, which means that it may well develop into a sleeper hit. Rob Nixon, however, feels that the central interracial relationship in the novel, between the hero and a retired black miner, feels "unearned" by the boy. More likely to appear on my bedside table is The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, a classic of Chinese literature by Han Bongqing (1856-1894) that is making its first appearance here in any kind of book, translated by the Eileen Chang, and revised and edited by Eva Hung. Sing-Song Girls is all about courtesans and their reckless, irresponsible clients. It sounds quite scrutable.

Finally, there is Witold Gombrowcz's Cosmos, translated into English by Danuta Borchardt. Reviewer Neil Gordon writes,

Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism's literary competition - perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.

Yes, one of those guilt-inducing books that really do make you feel better for having read them, thus justifying the nagging of Sontag, Updike & Co. You first?

This week's Essay is by Jonathan Lethem. "Italo for Beginners" appears to argue for an anthology of the "best" Calvino, so that newbies will be sure to confront what the late Italian writer's dedicated admirers savor most, while regretting the interposition of editorial assistance between writer and reader. In short, Mr Lethem seems to be conducting an argument with himself in public. Unfortunately, he doesn't finish it.


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But wouldn't you say that Lethem's essay is a call for a Calvino reader? Or did I skim that essay too quickly while trying to recall my own Calvino readings in 1996-1997.

Also, I received the galley for The Mercy of Thin Air this summer and found it to sound substantially wanting before Katrina so imagine my continued lack of interest at this stage in the game. I could write a better book... This book probably wouldn't have merited a review without the catastrophe. Here's hoping the writer isn't reading this and won't take me to task for my hometown haughtiness.

Thank you for letting me know that the VW bio was reviewed by Curtis Sittenfeld. Also, now I am feeling renewed guilt for never having read the Quentin Bell biography. Ooops. Another case of so many books so little time...

Or Hermoine Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf! There are days when I wish for a month in bed bed to begin to catch up on my reading...

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