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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Perhaps I ought to point out, every so often, that there are three areas of Book Review coverage that I don't follow: Crime, Science Fiction, and Children's Books.

There, that's out of the way. Now for something truly surprising: a bad review for Nadine Gordimer! Get A Life, reviewed by Sophie Harrison, doesn't sound very inviting. A man afflicted with a variety of thyroid cancer that Ms Harrison assures us is not as deadly as the novelist thinks it is - take that! - a man with cancer goes off to live with his parents so that his wife and son will not be exposed to his radioactivity. Odious comparisons with The Magic Mountain are invited. "Sickness may be a universal human affliction," Ms Harrison writes, "but that doesn't mean each person's experience of it isn't unique. This novel forgets that. I've always felt bullied by Ms Gordimer whenever I've tried out one of her stories in The New Yorker, and I'm not a fan.

Nadine Gordimer, however, is a celebrated writer. First-time novelist Jennifer Vandever is not, and I wonder why reviewer Chelsea Cain was given two-thirds of a page to enumerate the faults of The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR. I'd like to stop right there, with the PR crack, but the review itself has a great line. Sara Frost is a Charlotte Brontë scholar in search of a lost letter that will make or break her dissertation. I have learned to dislike this sort of book, of which the following sentence, mutatis mutandis, always seems apt:

There are quotes from Brontë's letters, some biographical trivia, a bit of gossip about an unrequited love - but Sara's devotion to Brontë's work is never entirely believable.

That's because it's literary appliqué, meretriciously tarting up a routine bit of chick-lit. Another tell-tale sign: the bad girl, Claire, is the sparkling character at the center of the satire that Ms Vandever ought to have written.

The symposium at which Claire quotes Yeats, Versace and Donald Trump, all in relation to Princess Diana [her subject], highlights not only Claire's ridiculousness but the inherent perils of taking pop culture seriously at all.

Dawn Drzal's review of Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson, set off a surprisingly intense siren wail, the one that signals backfiring humor, than which few literary mishaps are more unpleasant. "When going out to dinner with someone you would be relieved to learn had died during the course of the day," runs the note to one of the facetious recipes that stud this novel about one of those Englishmen who dislikes just about everybody. Once upon a time, I found this sort of thing hugely funny. I don't know what happened, but it certainly happened. Now, when I read that note, I'm simply relieved that I'm not likely to have dinner with anyone whom I'd prefer to be dead.

Former counterterrorism official Richard A Clarke has penned a thriller, Scorpion's Gate, that would probably start up a gale of constructive questioning by the people who ought to read it, were they to read it. According to thriller-writer Joseph Finder's review,

The Scorpion's Gate is unlikely to alter American foreign policy and as a thriller it's not going to set anyone's hair on fire. But its geopolitical arguments are no doubt as plausible as any you might find in the President's Daily Brief. Probably more so. After all, whatever his enemies in the Bush administration may say, Clarke's talent really isn't for fiction.

Nice touch, that. Helen Shulman's review of Music Through the Floor: Stories, by Eric Puchner, is a rave. Mr Puchner's tales, she writes,

are told in a classical mode - not groundbreaking in terms of form or content (misfits forced to swim against life's current), but executed with such fluency, constructed with such surprising plot twists and blessed with so many bright, memorable lines that they rise above the contemporary din.

The problem was, I came to Ms Shulman's judgment. She writes with more enthusiasm than appreciation. David Kirby's similarly favorable review of Kay Ryan's new book of poems, The Niagara River, seems more reliable on that score. He places her verse in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and notes that she "cautions us against our strengths rather than our frailties."


I'm tempted to ignore Hugo Lindgren's review of two new books about video games on the theory that they're science fiction, but that, of course, is exactly what they're not. Imagine how pleased I was to read the editorial suggestion that they "may show us where the whole world is heading." Edward Castranova, author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, is "bullish," Mr Lindgren writes.

Life in these alternative zones may eventually become so fulfilling, he contends, "that a fairly substantial exodus may loom in the distance." He means this, really. Like the Irish and Italians who left their native lands in the late 19th century to come to America, gamers could create a genuine human migration, away from the real and into the virtual. What will be real then?

Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, the authors of Smartboard: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big bucks in the Videogame Revolution, are apparently more realistic. They write about an obsessive gamer who frequently loses his jobs and has to move back in with his mother. This is one pastime that I'm grateful I was simply too old for. (Full disclosure: I play FreeCell during interruptions, and I'll play the same hand until I've played every card ("won"), but I have never actually sat down at the computer to play it.)

There are two books about science. One, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks," by Clifford D Conner, is doomed from the start. I didn't need Jonathan Wiener's review to underline the sad truth about so many of the discoveries that contributed to our comfort and convenience: they were made anonymously and not recorded. There are a few gadgets - zippers, for example - whose invention can be traced, but most cannot, and some discoveries, such as that of bronze, probably required "generations of experimenters." While speculating about such matters, Mr Conner is huffy about Great Men - the Newtons and Einsteins who discovered universal laws of little everyday application. At least our scientific endeavor forms a continuum from theory to practice; in the middle ages, engineers built cathedrals without any input from academics. Mr Clifford is guilty of grudging wishful thinking. Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, in contrast, is quite level-headed, even if reviewer John Horgan calls his book a "diatribe, from start to finish." There is simply no question that Republicans have been intervening in what used to be non-partisan projects in order to free enterprise from restriction on the one hand and to pacify religious conservatives on the other. The former is by far the more damaging, because it invariably involves environmental degradation. You would expect a patriarchy to take its stewardship responsibilities seriously, but the one currently running the United States couldn't care less about what human beings will have to cope with fifty years from now. Or perhaps they really do believe their own misstatements and adulterations of language. The Republican War on Science is essential reading for anyone who has just begun to have doubts about the Bush Administration.

In Come Back to Afghanistan, Said Hyder Akbar, a teenager from California, writes, with help from Susan Burton, an editor at "This American Life," about a recent sojourn in his ancestral homeland. His father, Said Fazel Akbar, returned to Afghanistan at the request of his old friend, Hamid Karzai, who appointed him governor of Kunar. His son spent summers with him, and, at the urging of Ms Burton, he kept the audio diary that is the basis of this book. I doubt that there will be many surprises for readers of The Kite Runner, but Mr Akbar does appear to have developed a critical view of the American military presence, which, as usual, is poor at effective communication with the locals. (All I have to do is imagine Manhattan's occupation by troops of undereducated Appalachians, and I'm as good as in Kabul myself.)

Cambridge don Richard J Evans is working on a three-volume look at Nazi Germany; the second, The Third Reich In Power: 1933-1939, looks like a good read for anyone who can stand that sort of thing right now; I'm still recovering from Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of the Führer. (Under a different administration, I'd have recovered a long time ago; instead, I'm getting worse.) Brian Ladd praises the book but in the end pronounces it "less gripping ... than Shirer's." I'm not sure that being gripping is what a history of fascist misrule needs to strive for. I believe that Professor Evans is a leading opponent of Holocaust-denier David Irving.

On the whole, Luke Mitchell doesn't see the need for The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution, by Marc Weingarten. The high-profile journalists that came out of the Sixties had and have little in common beyond the cultivation of distinctive narrative voices; if they are all mildly paranoid, they're not afraid of the same monsters. A book that set out to distinguish these writers from one another would have been much more useful. Of no use whatever is Peggy Noonan's hagiography, John Paul the Great. I didn't know that Ms Noonan grew up in a household of lapsed Catholics, but everything else in Kenneth L Woodward's review was predictable. Why does Ms Noonan bother? Aside from a brief greeting, she did not know the late pontiff, and she has no original scholarship to offer. I have a hard time allowing this book to line up under the nonfiction rubric. "John Paul the Great," writes Mr Woodward,

is as much about Peggy Noonan as it is about the pope - which is probably why her name is in larger print than his on the cover, and in the place where book titles normally appear.

David Leavitt's new book about Alan Turing looks appealing, and I may get it on the strength of Madison Smartt Bell's incredibly good book about Lavoisier, an earlier entry in the Atlas/Norton "Great Discoveries" series. Reviewer George Johnson likes The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer well enough, but he feels that Mr Leavitt did a better job of getting into the mind of one of his fictional characters than he goes of entering Turing's, but I'm not sure that is quite what's required. If Mr Leavitt can make Turing's work as obviously indispensable as Mr Bell made Lavoisier's, then I'll be quite happy.

Neither The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, by Richard M Fried, nor Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home, by Harvey Araton, gets an entirely favorable review. Michael Kazin is not sure that the world is a better place because of the advertising ministrations of the huckster from BBD&O, much less that he had anything to contribute to the making of America. Upon a second look, I see that I'm wrong as to Mr Araton's book - Alexander Wolff likes it. It cannot be said even now that I have read the review.

Tara McKelvey, an American Prospect editor whom I read in The Nation, rounds up five books for a Nonfiction Chronicle. The first of these is 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building, by Michael Gross. On all the evidence - not just Ms McKelvey's - this book is too silly to mention. It is what we New Yorkers call "real estate porn," certainly no less salacious than the other kind. How Not To Get Rich: Or Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad, by Robert Sullivan. This is not a serious book, either, although it might have been.

Ultimately, the book reads as if it had been dashed off by a guy telling his wife he was a fool not to buy the first apartment they lived in, even though she recognized "an on-ramp to financial security," and not, unfortunately, by a guy who take any of this stuff seriously.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, by Heather Rogers, is one measure of how far we have to go before we start taking stewardship seriously. It might make you think, but it lacks the visual impact of David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries. Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, by Larry Beinhart, ought really to have been called Fog Brain: Trying to Think While Watching Television, but that would have been a different book, I suppose.

The lone history book in the Chronicle fares no better under Ms McKelvey's discerning eye. Court Lady and Country Wife: Two Noble Sisters in Seventeenth-Century England, by Lita-Rose Betcherman, is about offshoots of the Percy family who prospered, after a fashion, during the Stuart Restoration. One was a beauty, the other a prolific mother. On balance, neither was an interesting woman. Ouch!

Pamela Paul's Essay, "What Are They Saying About Me?" discusses authors and the bloggers who write about them. This will be an interesting piece to look back on in five years, by which time the blogosphere will have become far more articulated - organized in regions and levels - than it is now. The essay was compulsive reading for me, needless to say, but it didn't have anything interesting to say about the vineyard in which I'm toiling.

Finally, Byron Calame, the newspaper's public editor, weighed in, in "The Week In Review," on conflict-of-interest procedures at the Book Review. I tried to read it three times but could not make any headway.


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