« Against my better judgment | Main | Stubborn »

Book Review

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

This week, there is a lot of interesting non-fiction. There is Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography, enthusiastically received by pop authorities Jane and Michael Stern.

When the Beatles began, it would have been unthinkable to read a well-written biography about rock 'n' roll performers that was as serious and thoroughly researched as an important book about Faulkner or Picasso or Mao. For better and for worse, the Beatles changed off that. Their evolution sent shock waves radiating into culture and commerce as they took rock 'n' roll from the periphery to the mainstream and gave pop music a gravity heretofore unknown.

In the Sterns' opinion, Mr Spitz book is indeed such a serious and thoroughly researched book. It also had them hooked in ten pages.

Then there's Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, by Paul Berman. According to Johann Hari, this book demonstrates that student unrest in the Europe of the late Sixties and early Seventies was much more than a matter of riots accented by terrorism. "Those were the rancid afterbirth of the street protests. The baby itself, [Mr Berman] writes persuasively, grew into a vibrant European antitotalitarian tradition." That seems right to me; I only wish that it had been the case here in the United States as well, but our hippies were far less serious about anything than their European counterparts.

There's Jesus and Jahweh: The Names Divine, by Harold Bloom. This book is right up my alley, except that Harold Bloom's prose style is deeply unattractive. Mr Bloom distinguishes sharply between Jahweh, Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ, arguing that they have nothing to do with one another, and he insists that there is no such thing as "Judeo-Christian" beliefs. I'd like a lot of my Christian friends to read this book. Joshua Rosen's review may just have to suffice for me.

Three books explore important black American careers. First is Jill Watts's Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award; reviewer Dana Stevens doesn't say so, but I've read that, in order to get into the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel to receive the award, the actress had to pass through the kitchen. The dilemma facing all black entertainers until very, very recently, was whether to be true to their black roots or to work at all, at a time when working meant caricaturing themselves. Hattie McDaniel worked out a compromise, but it was not good enough for many in the NAACP, and her Oscar didn't do her much good. (She got to reprise the role of Mammy in The Great Lie, an underrated Bette Davis vehicle.) Mr Stevens reviews this book together with Mel Watkins's Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Perry was an altogether less attractive person, grandiose and deferential at the same time. He appears to have owned a pink Rolls-Royce with his name spelled out on the boot hood - in neon. That must have been one of the earliest automotive applications of an inert gas.

A more redoubtable black American is the subject of Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. Mr Franklin has combined scholarship and ardent advocacy over a long and eminent career. David Oshinsky writes,  

Franklin has studied his nation for nearly three-quarters of a century. His scholarship tells us that people must be judged by their willingness to remove the obstacles and disadvantages that oppress society's most vulnerable members. His conscience reminds us of how much remains to be done.

Now for the books that are not on my list. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, by Mike Davis, has the misfortune to appear at a time when almost everybody is singing in the choir of the converted; the question is what to do, not whether to do something, and books such as this can't be saved even by the great writing that reviewer Matt Steinglass finds here. Nor am I going to read Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D Kaplan. David Lipsky astutely captures the problem with Mr Kaplan's thinking, which I'd noticed myself in various articles in The Atlantic: Mr Kaplan likes war.

Toward the book's end, Kaplan reflects that no to have participated in some kind of war was to be "denied the American experience," to be "not fully American." He continues, "the war on terror was giving two generations of Americans vivid memories." This might strike a reader as a somewhat more cosmopolitan notion that anything the elites could cook up at their "seminars and dinner parties." War as self-enhancement, as an experience not-to-be-missed. "The American experience," Kaplan writes, "was exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once. It was a privilege, as well as great fun, to be with those who were still living it."

You can't beat that for catastrophic wrong-headedness - I hope. In his front-page review, John Simon argues that Richard Schickel's Elia Kazan: A Biography, is a book not-to-be-missed. Kazan made a lot of important pictures, among them A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but I've never really liked them, and the review suggests that the director was far too involved in issues of "manliness" to appeal to me.

According to Gregg Easterbrook, Benjamin M Friedman fails to make the case, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, that liberal democratic society requires constant growth. That's all I needed to know. Richard Sandomir pulls of the stunt of making David Halbertstam's The Education of a Coach sound interesting to me - but the review of this new book about Bill Belichick will have to do.

There are only three novels in this week's issue. The Jungle Law, by Victoria Vinton, is about Rudyard Kipling's sojourn in Vermont. Mark Kamine's review failed to rouse my interest, as did Wendy Smith's look at Robb Forman Dew's latest, The Truth of the Matter. Both novels appear to be rather well-done, but just not to my taste. John Banville's The Sea is more problematic. A few years ago, I read and disliked another novel by Mr Banville, Eclipse. If reviewer Terrence Rafferty is to be believed, The Sea is a somewhat different production, at least at first. As it goes on, however, it reverts to Mr Banville's natural style.

What's strangest about The Sea is that the novel somehow becomes simpler and clearer as it gets more self-conscious: a consequence, I suppose, of its author dropping the pretense of being one kind of writer and giving into his authentic and much more complicated creative nature.

There is no Essay this week, just a Rick Meyrowitz cartoon suggesting the books that "hatchet job" Dale Peck might have given us instead of the "genial fantasy for children" that he actually wrote. They're almost all delicious: How to Cook Your Editor, Liizzie Borden Was An Amateur, Murder at Churlish Peeve, and The Twelve Stupidest Vegetables in My Garden.

Finally, in "Poetry Chronicle," Joshua Clover and Joel Brouwer review ten new collections. Of Mr Clover's five, two stood out for further exploration: The Life of a Hunter, by Michelle Robinson, and Company of Moths, by Michael Palmer. I'll let you know. Heather Fuller (Startle Response) David Baker (Midwest Eclogue) and Arthur Sze (Quipu) will require further advocacy. Of Mr Brouwer's five, the same outcome obtained: Simone Muench's Lampblack & Ash and Brian Turner's Here, Bullet got my attention; I had already heard good things about Mr Turner's verses on the themes of our Iraqi misadventure. Elizabeth Alexander (American Sublime), Adrian Castro (Wise Fish), and Patricia Ferrell (Thirty Years War) didn't catch my eye. I won't say more, because it's idiotic to measure a poem by extracts from a review. I don't know how grateful these poets will be for their somewhat crammed exposure.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


Dear RJ,

Much belated I bought and am awaiting the _13_ ways of the novel. Something Buddhist there, no?

Have you read or gotten William St Clair's _The Reading Nation_. A tremendously important book for understanding literature for real. I tried to get a used copy for $130 but someone got it before me. $130 was nuts. It sells for $175. At GMU
library there's a line ahead of me for both copies the Fenwick bought.

Shall we have a project to find and read _The Reading Nation_?

Elinor (Dashwood -- in reality I prefer this pseudonym)

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2