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Book Review

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


Why, one wonders, have the editors of the Book Review given Marcel Theroux's ultimately unfavorable review of Cold Sun, the Catalan novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol, the same amount of space that they've allotted to Caroline Alexander's thoughtful coverage of three obviously more significant books? Mr Theroux's piece summarizes Mr Piñol's gothic monster story, set in Antarctica, and then trashes the author's way of telling it. This looks like free-riding to me. Ms Alexander's books are the first offerings of a new series, from the publisher Canongate, of celebrated myths retold by eminent authors, and also Karen Armstrong's non-fiction introduction to the series, also in book form, A Short History of Myth. The review is guardedly enthusiastic about Ms Armstrong's book. As for the two novels, she really likes Jeanette Winterson's Weight, which retails the mythic episode in which Herakles relieved Atlas of the weight of the world, so that Atlas could fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for him, and she really doesn't like Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which, in her opinion, is just one missed opportunity after another. "This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that becomes dangerously close to being a spoof.

Other fiction is rounded up in Polly Shulman's Fiction Chronicle.

Twins, by Marcy Dermansky, sounds intriguing. Chloe and Sue have contrasting feelings about their twinship which repolarize over time. I'll have to check out the quality of the prose, first.

¶ So does The English Teacher, by Lily King. An adolescent tries to save his mother from alcoholism and to get her to tell him about his father, whom he never knew.

Macdougal Street Ghosts, by Hesper Anderson, does not come across very well. It is the story of a rather nasty-sounding wife living in Greenwich Village during the Sixties, and Ms Shulman's review is somewhat ambivalent. Does the following passage mean that this novel is a "devastating portrait" or a "boring read"?

Callie's little rebellion may be part of that larger story, but only accidentally; she's too wrapped up in self-pity and a sense of entitlement to care about advancing anybody's cause but her own.

¶ Tim Winton's The Turning: New Stories appears, on the evidence of this review, to channel Cormac McCarthy's austere horrors in an Australian setting.

If You Want Me To Stay, by Michael Parker, is a coming-of-age novel very unlike The English Teacher, taking place as it does (part of the time) in the locked cab of a pickup truck, where three boys seek protection while their father loses his mind. Eventually, the eldest turns on the engine and embarks in pursuit of Mom.

Emily Nussbaum generously reviews The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. The most accessible of the famous New York School poets, Koch was, in Ms Nussbaum's opinion,

"sloppy, in other words - willing to chatter on, lacking precision. But then, it was these very weaknesses, and his avid pleasure in the flux and mess of the world, that made Kenneth Koch - as a writer and as a poetic persona - such a delight. An unrestrained celebrant of the urban appetites, he gave excitement a good name.


We'll start with two charming books, A N Wilson's After the Victorians, which Walter Olson doesn't think much of, and Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples, by Dan Hofstadter, about which Shirley Hazzard is enthusiastic. Mr Olson, of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, has little patience for Mr Wilson's anti-US judgments, and not for the first time I have to wonder what the editors were thinking when they aligned book and reviewer. It's at times like this that I feel that the Times is not-so-covertly right-wing. After the Victorians is a sequel to a book that I have written about here. As for the Naples book, you can be sure that I'd be buying it Ms Hazzard herself were the author. Two of her novels, Cliffs of Fall and The Bay of Noon are indelibly set in Italy, the latter in Naples. (And of course there's her sparkling memoir, Greene on Capri.)

There's a book about Buffalo Bill, that, according to Geoffrey C Ward, will be indispensable to readers who are

interested in Buffalo Bill, 19th-century show business or the many meanings of the American West,,,

As I fit into none of these categories, I'll be giving Louis S Warren's Buffalo bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show a pass. Even if it were otherwise, I'd be put off by such prose as Mr Ward quotes. Professor Warren has set out to write the definitive book about the mythogenic showman, and in more or less academic terms. I would just as soon find myself on the moon as in "the American West" - the region between Omaha, Nebraska and Pasadena, California. I saw it first in the days when advertisements sometimes included the proviso, "shipping slightly higher west of the Rockies" - or even "of the Mississippi." I am still in therapy.

Lynn Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, does not strike me as a very gifted writer. For all her vexed fretting about punctuation, she doesn't seem to have an ear for the music that punctuation creates (sometimes by omission). Like so many writers about language - and good old William Safire will remain at the top of my list of sinners in this regard until he stops pontificating in the Sunday Times Magazine - Ms Truss is cursed with a tin ear, and I for one refuse to seek advice from those incapable of felicitous prose. Her new book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today seems, in reviewer Bob Morris's view, "more likely to empower her fellow sticklers to set themselves upon the world, causing, in this rage-prone age, more incivility, not less."

This leaves two books about current affairs. One, reviewed by Andrew Wheatcroft, is The Great War for Civilization, by reporter Robert Fisk. Mr Wheatcroft feels that this compendious volume is "several books fighting each other inside the sack": a memoir, "an intelligent young person's guide to western Asia," and a tirade against American and Israeli activities. The reviewer acknowledges that he shares many of the author's views, but he wishes that Mr Fisk would be less contentious and more circumspect about laying them out. Helpfully, Mr Wheatcroft reminds us that today's troubled state of affairs dates back to mistakes finalized, so to speak in 1919.

Matt Bai's review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson, may save you some money, because this book has nothing to add to the What's the Matter With Kansas school of political analysis.

In fact, Hacker and Pierson cannot seem to find any significant fault among Democrats at all, save for their chronic but so darn lovable disunity. Like Frank and Lakoff, the authors seem to prefer the more self-ennobling explanation that conservatives have seized power from an unwitting electorate. For all its pretensions to objectivity, Off Center deteriorates into just the latest example in our political discourse of what might be called confirmational analysis - that is, a work whose primary purpose is to confirm what its audience already believes.

When will intelligent progressives recognize how deadly and self-defeating this "self-ennobling" is? And when are young politicians going to realize that what's wrong with the Democratic Party is nothing less than its continuing existence? To be sure, I share much more with Democrats than with Republicans - today's Republicans especially - but that does not blind me to the fact that the Party, as an association of actual individuals, can go nowhere but down, and that the only question is how long individual Democrats, by holding on to their personal power, will prolong the rule of right-wing-nuttery. I admire Senator Hillary Clinton; I voted for her in 2000 and will do so again next year. But any party that seriously proposes her as a presidential, or even vice-presidential candidate is simply delusional.

This week's Essay is by Sean Wilentz, and it clearly represents a sliver of research from his monumental The Rise of American Democracy. It is nowhere near as dire as its title, "The Rise of Illiterate Democracy," suggests. Rather, it compares the once robust contact between politicians and literary men (during the period covered in Rise) with today's mutual indifference. He's not talking about political novels - although there haven't been too many good ones lately; he's talking about men such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was described, in The Democratic Review, as a politician. As indeed he was. Everybody knows that he wrote The Scarlet Letter because a Whig victory had cost him his post at the Salem Custom House, but many prefer to imagine that he got the post in the first place from a rich and benevolent patron. That's true only in the sense that the Democratic Party was a rich and benevolent patron.

There is another, much longer essay in this week's Review, Barry Gewen's "State of the Art." An octet of recent books about art today provides the pretext for a lucid discussion of modernism, post-modernism, and the place of art in American society. I believe that it deserves its own entry, and I will try to get to it later this week.

Last week's Review offered a list of the year's hundred "notable" books. This has been distilled to a ten-best list. Nothing is going to make me try Haruki Murakami again; I found The Wild Sheep Chase one of the most annoying books ever. I do not begin to understand his appeal. That everybody would like On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, makes perfect sense, but this novel, if nowhere near as irritating as Mr Murakami's, added up to a big nothing. I found the situations and relationships altogether willed, and believed in none of them. Had the book been centered on Levi's identity problems, as a mixed-race adolescent ashamed of his privileges but probably not capable of living without them, I might have found some power in the book. Ms Smith writes very well, and even uses a couple of words that are new to me, but her central couple, Kiki and Howard, proved unable to sustain her literary pretensions. As for the nonfiction books, Tony Judt's Postwar catches my eye. I ought to avoid it, probably. Everything that I have read, either by Mr Judt (in The New York Review of Books), or about him, has presented an unpleasantly muscular thinker, an analyst with attitude and an impatience with the more common human sentiments. I gather that he has a blind spot where women are concerned, at least as political beings. All reviews have been favorable, but I don't need a book that in countless small ways will raise my blood pressure.

My candidate for Single Most Important Book of 2005 did not make the list, and that tells me a lot about middlebrows at the Times. It is the subject of the next entry.


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