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Book Review

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

Taking on this week's Book Review is daunting. Instead of three or four novels, there are ten under review, a roundup of recent graphic fiction and the two volumes of Philip Roth that the Library of America has issued. Twenty one works of nonfiction are reviewed. And on top of all that, there are eight holiday roundups (photography, travel, and so on). By the time I'd finished reading the Review, I was sick of books.

Novels that sound interesting: Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide (Pat Walsh: "The author's declarative style and vivid imagery allow the science of the ocean to blend easily with its poetry. ... these small flaws do little to diminish the bittersweet joy that comes when finishing a strong novel by a fine writer."); Phone Rings, by Stephen Dixon (Sven Birkerts: "Violating every sacred canon of narrative construction, Dixon has nonetheless fashioned an intimate, wrenching picture of loss - how the impossibly great value of a life can be taken away and never brought back."); In Lucia's Eyes, by Arthur Japin and translated from the Nederlands by David Colmer (notwithstanding Kathryn Harrison's favorable review. This novel involves Casanova in Amsterdam); Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (Simon Baker: "Still more impressive is Iweala's ability to maintain not only our sympathy but our affection for his central character." Indeed, given that the hero is a child drawn into tribal warfare.); and Making It Up, by Penelope Lively (Reviewed by Roxana Robinson. Ms Lively has written a contrafactual memoir: what might have her life have been like had she taken different turns?);

As for the rest:

¶ Philip Roth is very much not on my list. Every once in a while I read an extract in a magazine and end up repulsed. Gary Shteyngart's review is a largely unnecessary explanation of Mr Roth's appeal to Jewish readers.

¶ According to Lynn Freed, an important character in Joanna Scott's Liberation "comes off as an idea for a character - an idealistic youth from an exotic culture - and rather a sentimental  one at that."

¶ Alexander McCall Smith writes of Carlos Maria Dominguez's The House of Paper (translated by Nick Caistor and illustrated by Peter Sìs): "The delight in The House of Paper is not so much in the story of the search but in the poetic style of its telling and in Dominguez's whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia." I have grown very suspicious of whimsical asides on reading and bibliophilia. They're often nothing more self-congratulatory procrastination.

¶ Judith Warner really liked The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, by Carolly Erickson, even though she doesn't care for historical fiction. I'm afraid of contaminating my brain with plausible but fictive observations put in the mouth of a woman who doesn't seem to have cared much for reading or writing. Remember what MA's husband wrote in his diary for 14 July 1789: "Rien." He was referring to the day's hunt.

¶ Ada Calhoun doesn't think much of Julie Baumgold's The Diamond, a "fictionalized history of the Régent diamond, which currently sits in the Louvre. "It's rather like being lectured at by an arts administrator about painting."

John Hodgman rounds up recent graphic fiction releases. I, for one, am delighted to retire the term "comics" and its variants. The French do it best: the spelled-out abbreviation, bédé (for "bande dessinée), works so well precisely because it doesn't pass judgment in the way that even "graphic fiction" does. Come on , try it: bayday, with an ever-so-slight accent on the second syllable. I can't wait to get David Clowe's Ice Haven; it seems to be an anthology of graphic possibilities. I'm also drawn to Red Meat Gold: The Third Collection of Red Meat Cartoons From the Secret Files of Max Cannon, but I probably won't, because I like to be the principal source of humor in this household. Walt & Skeezix 1921 & 1922 reminds me of how opaque "Gasoline Alley" was when I was a kid; amazingly, it's still being drawn (by its fourth artist). Black Hole, by Charles Burns, looks fascinating but creepy. There's no illustration from Der Struwwelmaakies, by Tony Millionaire, so I'll have to see a copy of this dark strip before I can judge. I will not be in the market for The Complete Peanuts 1957-1958 or any of its sequels. Nor for The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.

I had to look up It's Superman!, by Tom De Haven, to find out whether this, too was a bédé. It is not, even though Josh Emmons writes, "And yet the cartoon world of It's Superman! is often as delightful as the original created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Colors, sounds and emotions are exaggerated to great, infectious effect, so that when Superman is sent hurtling through the air by an explosion, we thrill to the ride." A novel about Superman?

Next, we have nonfiction. As noted, there's even more of this than there was of the other. There are two pop-music reviews, one of them a roundup of eleven books. I have decided to exempt myself from comprehending these reviews, even to the point of eliding their titles, although I'll note that Dave Itzkoff and David Kelly share the reviewing. Will Hermes reviews Nik Cohn's Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap. I'd skip it, too, if Triksta weren't given an entire page and set in New Orleans - but I'm afraid that that will have to do. Nothing makes me fear for the future more anxiously than rap. I attribute this to senility and move on.

There are two books about cold water that don't interest me much, Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, by Mariana Gosnell (reviewed by Elizabeth Royte) and Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches, by Jill Fredston (Florence Williams). I wasn't planning to read John Feinstein's Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today's NFL, so I'll just note that, according to reviewer Joseph Nocera, it's "not great. It is not even particularly good."

On the literary front:

¶ There is a new collection of The Letters of Lytton Strachey, edited by Paul Levy. Lucy Ellmann would have liked better notes.

¶ If I think of Sir Lawrence Olivier as a literary figure, that's because I can't forget how unintentionally funny his film of Hamlet is. Richard Schickel - who's book about Elia Kazan, you'll recall, was generously reviewed last week - writes the fourth review of Terry Coleman's Olivier that I have read.

¶ Francine Prose claims that John Worthen's D H Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider helped her understand a little better a writer whom she'd not much cared for. The last time I tried Lawrence, I thought I was chewing cement.

¶ Cristina Nehring, reviewing Hazel Rowley's Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, regrets that Beauvoir didn't stick with Nelson Algren. If she had, "perhaps their two opposing intensities - her "stern" theory of passion and his hot-blooded embrace of it - would have melded into a new amorous philosophy, the one we are still missing." Ms Nehring also finds that Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre was based on lies.

¶ According to Cathy Horyn, Penelope Rowlands doesn't understand why her subject was a great editor at Vogue and then at Harper's Bazaar. A serious impediment to reading A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters. "Because Rowlands never clearly identifies the qualities that influence [Snow's] choices, among them self-reliance and a tendency, as Nast put it, to 'befog' issues, her portrait is not as critical as it should be, nor as sympathetic as it might be."

¶ Frank McCourt's account of his life as a teacher in New York's public schools, Teacher Man: A Memoir, gets a sympathetic review from Ben Yagoda. My inner critic has warned me to keep away from Mr McCourt, although it feels curmudgeonly to say so.

¶ Samuel Johnson is one of the strangest eminences in English letters, and his Dictionary does nothing to make him more like the others. Charles McGrath, the Review's former editor, seems to be mildly disappointed that of Henry Hitching's Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson's Dictionary, is not just another biography, and he spends most of his space telling us things that we mostly knew. I come away insufficiently informed to judge.

There are two sort-of history books that I'm not going to read, despite their interesting subject matter. According to Caroline Alexander, Bettany Hughes believes that her Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore was an actual woman, but fails to "cite evidence for her thesis." Ms Alexander also writes of a "welter of detail." On the basis of reviewer Liesl Schillinger's quotations from Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600, author Evelyn Welch has relied too heavily on learned tirades against consumer excess, tendentious at best and not reliable mirrors of contemporary behavior. The very idea of "shopping" is as anachronistic in writing about the Renaissance as "fashion magazine" would be. As for really good history, I'm definitely putting Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: the Last Great Tsar on my list. I'd have done so no matter what Richard Lourie wrote about it. Mr Radzinsky's book about Nicholas II, The Last Tsar, was compelling reading.

There are two books about local waterways. The Hudson: A History, by Tom Lewis, begins with Henry Hudson's travels and end with current efforts to make the river clean. Reviewer Robert Sullivan doesn't quote enough from the book to give me an idea of its readability (and in any case I'll want to check out the illustrations first). Liesl Schillinger avoids this pitfall when she winningly quotes George Matteson, author of Tugboats of New York: An Illustrated History, on his topic: "It takes relatively little to get them moving and a long time to get them to stop, and anything that gets in their way is done for."

Peter Bearman has written a book about Doormen, and Judith Martin (Miss Manners) makes it sound totally must-have. I've already started saving up for this year's Christmas tips. We've got six doormen, and although I'm not going to tell you how much I tip each one of them - a new improvement from the late night guy's standpoint, since we used to give him less, until we realized that just because we never saw him he didn't mean that he wasn't keeping us safe - and you'd be a fool to believe me if I did, I will add that we throw in a bottle of Moët & Chandon White Star. New Yorkers will doubtless find much occasion for rueful chuckling in Doormen, but I hope that out-of-towner's will read it, because, contrary to the impression conveyed by Hollywood, doormen are not latter-day flunkies who open doors but sensitive agents in the operation of New York's culture.

It's hard to tell just how enthusiastic reviewers Jane and Michael Stern are about Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition. Having noted that author Walter Gratzer "reels out a historical pageant of science and pseudoscience teeming with remarkable characters who have advanced (and retarded) knowledge about what makes humans thrive," they go on to spend most of the review talking about pellagra.

We wrap up with two titles touching on humor:

The Truth (With Jokes) by Al Franken, glowingly reviewed by Carl Hiaasen. As Mr Hiaasen has made clear in his wonderful novels (and in his fiery tract, Team Disney) "we live in a great and bountiful country for joke writers." Sad but funny.

¶ Henry Alford does not write glowingly of The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales. "Anthologies can be wonderful showcases for personal essays, but The Worst Noel - which doesn't even identify its editor - is less memorable as a forum for good writing than as a reminder of four of the genre's more dispiriting traits." Which Mr Alford goes on to enumerate. The review is the point here, so find it and read it.


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At last, le mot juste for Gasoline Alley – "opaque."

That strip baffled me as a young reader more than 50 years ago, and I'm amazed to learn that it's still in production (le mot juste again, I think).

What newspapers still publish this thing, and why? I know from experience that many papers function by giving their attention to a handful of urgent pages, leaving the rest to be filled by dozy time-servers shovelling junk into vacant spaces, but for goodness' sake – Gasoline Alley, still, today? A paper with room for that mold farm is in worse shape than General Motors.

How can Gasoline Alley still have readers? As nearly as I can figure from reading it in the 1950s, and noticing it again in the 1970s, the fundamental mysteries were made clear to the audience at the beginning, and never explained thereafter. Certainly I never knew who was who or what was what.

Nowadays I wonder whether Doonesbury strikes new readers the same way. I was in on the ground floor for that one, but I'd hate trying to explain it today to a bright 16-year-old.

All of which explains why I still remember Calvin and Hobbes with gratitude. It was great fun in its day, and its creator knew when the day was done.

Dear RJ,

I was reading in your archives and wanted to say that Jim agrees there is no such thing as an anonymous blog. They are mostly pseudonymous. Pure anonymity he suggests is rare and hard to achieve.

Thank you for quoting me on

I can't see any book I want to read from among this lot.

Back to Jane Smiley,


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