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Book Review

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

We begin with a prayer for slack. Yes, it is Wednesday, and this feature is three days overdue. But we will not enumerate excuses. Our bad. Like the MTA, we thank you for your patience.

Fiction & Poetry

Have you heard of Justin Cartwright? According to reviewer Tony Eprile, Mr Cartwright is often mentioned along with Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis as a leading light of British fiction. His latest, The Promise of Happiness, doesn't sound very promising so far as Mr Eprile's summary goes, but I'll definitely have a look at this writer. He'd better be more like Messrs McEwan and Ishiguro than Mr Amis, however. Mr Amis is off my list. So is Paul Auster. Walter Kirn gallantly tries to find interest among the shards of Mr Auster's cleverness in The Brooklyn Follies. "An incredibly loud finale," Mr Kirn writes of the Follies finale, "with lots of smoke." File this title under "Life is too short."

Is Christopher Buckley to be trusted when he claims that Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days is "very well-written"? Since he also says that it's "knowing," he must be referring to the quality of the prose, and on the strength of that recommendation I'll give Dog Days a chance, despite many misgivings. Ms Cox is, of course, the former editor of the one-way political Web log, Wonkette. Washington is one sausage factory that I can't take an interest in; it tries, from time to time, to be disgusting, but it rarely transcends the fug of massed, nerdy careerists. Pity, because it's a beautiful town in a charming part of the country.

Daniel Soar writes of Elliot Perlman's collection of short stories, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, that they're "unashamedly various without being feeble, a series of exercises in voice, perspective and style, [dealing] in violence, exile and much else besides." I missed Seven Types of Ambiguity, Mr Perlman's second novel, when it came out a few years ago, but it did make me want to learn more about William Empson. I'll give The Reasons I Won't Be Coming a personal exam the next time I'm in a bookshop. But I'll be giving Zakes Mda's The Whale Caller a pass. Madison Smartt Bell finds this romantic triangle, involving a middle-aged couple and a whale, unclear.

It more resembles a story made up serially for children who are not expected to remember all the episodes together or try to understand them as a coherent whole.

There are two books of poetry to consider, both by American eminences. Charles Bukowski's latest collection, Come On In! is reviewed by D H Tracy. I can't tell if Mr Tracy means to be complimentary when he writes,

That his poems get an F for craft doesn't bother him; since his life gets an F also, he achieves an extraordinary correspondence between word and action.

Then there's The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate. David Orr has written a Collinsesque poem which you ought to read for yourself. It ends:

In the end, what we need

from a poet with Collins's talent

is not a good-natured wave


from writer to reader,

or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;

what we need is to be drawn


high into the poem's cloud-filled air

and allowed to fall

on rocks real enough to hurt.


The most important book in this week's Book Review is unquestionably Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Black: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Orlando Patterson's gravely affirming review claims that "Shelby's powerful critique of black cultural particularism incorporates and supersedes all previous discussions of the subject." Briefly, Mr Shelby calls for a "thin" black identity that binds blacks not because of their "race" but because of the insult that has been dealt to people of color. Mr Patterson wishes that Mr Shelby had more to offer poor and ghettoized blacks than the demolition of all conceivable arguments in favor of "thick" identity (cultural particularism).

But if he fails in the positive side of his project, he does so in a constructive manner that prepares the ground for a second try. Given his youth, energy, and enormous intelligence, that second try will be worth waiting for.

In the latter part of the review, Mr Patterson all but deplores Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, by Nell Irvin Painter. A textbook, Ms Painter's work devotes a third of its pages to illustrations, all of them by black artists. This, in Mr Patterson's view, both clots the writing by denying sufficient room for the huge topic and denies the reader an array of contemporary portrayals of black experience prior to 1920.

The assumption throughout this book is that black artists have valuable insights to offer on events and personalities in black history hundreds of years before their time, and that these insights trump the vision of any white artists of the period. The fact that an important scholar could embrace such a view attests, more than anything else, to the dangers of black cultural identity and the urgency of Shelby's overdue critique.

John Simon has been a curmudgeonly old critic since the reign of Good Queen Anne, or so it seems. Now his pronouncements have been bundled up in three collections, John Simon on Theatre, with an introduction by Jack O'Brien, John Simon on Film, with an introduction by Bruce Bereford, and John Simon on Music, with an introduction by Ned Rorem. I didn't need Liesl Schillinger's review to decide that I'm going to pass on the first two of these but get the third.

While Simon's theatre and film criticism can serve as a chronological aide-mémoire for what was onstage and on screen at any particular period, his music criticism is less snarky, less time-pegged, less inventive and, arguably, more useful. It consists largely of informative profiles of his favorite composers, written to accompany new recordings of their works.

I don't know why, but it seems odd that Applause Theatre & Cinema Books is the publisher of these collections, not the Library of America.

There are two books by or about people who, among other things, were famous photographers - Lee Miller and Gordon Parks. Lee Miller: A Life, by Carolyn Burke, elicits a sympathetic review from Elissa Schappell, but, as she writes, "It is unfortunate that when Miller cracks up under the strain of depression and alcohol, her character doesn't crack open." More life-affirming, A Hungry Heart: A Memoir is the second installment of Gordon Parks's autobiography. John Wranovics writes, "Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers."

There are two works of history this week. One attempts to kindle interest in the career of May Duignan, aka Chicago May, a woman of crime. I gather from Ben MacIntyre's review that Nuala O'Faolain's The Story of Chicago May doesn't succeed, except insofar as it recaptures the immigrant experience of thousands of Irish men and women who encountered undreamed-of freedoms in the New World. Considerably less dispensable is Fred Anderson's The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. Jay Winik concludes thus:

In this little primer about a little-studied conflict, Anderson, a meticulous historian, writes with intelligence and vigor. He has given us a rich, cautionary tale about the unpredictability of war - then no less than today.

Equally interesting, and saddled with an equally unfortunate title, Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists, editedby Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane will probably find its way into my pile. The title of Jill Abramson's review, "The Lionesses," would have served much better. Photographs of Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Emma Goldman, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag adorn the text, and make it clear that Journalistas is a solid work. Ms Abramson is right to berate the editors for exclusing Hannah Arendt "because she wrote mostly in German." Even if true, that's preposterously irrelevant, considering the importance of her writing in English.

Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making "Rebel Without a Cause," by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, looks like a must-read for film buffs, not least because of the authors' proposition that, in review Stephanie Zacharek's words, "Dean helped redefine Hollywood's idea of masculinity." I am not above taking a lurid interest in the fact that director Nicholas Ray's son, Tony, slept with Ray's wife, Gloria Grahame, at the age of thirteen.

 I'm tempted to overlook Neil Genzlinger's Gambling Chronicle. I find gambling almost as profoundly boring as it is pointlessly risky. But Mr Genzlinger has an amusing hook: he describes each book with an expression that sounds as though it might mean something at the poker table.

Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas, by David Kushner. "Shoot the Puppy: to be overeager like a puppy, to the point that it detracts from your message by making people want to shoot you."

Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kids Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, by Ben Mezrich. "No Monte, Just Carlo: Something that appears glamorous but isn't; inspired by Carlo Rizzi, the hapless brother-in-law in The Godfather, who marries into the family but is beaten to a pulp by Sonny."

Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, by Annie Duke with David Diamond. "Grody Flush: a gratuitous reference to vomiting."

How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard, by Penn Jillette and Mickey D Lynn. "Bald Weasel: a person or thing that is transparently manipulative."

All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker, by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. "Pair of Lees: Anything that simultaneously invokes gorging (as in Sara Lee pastries) and spiritual emptiness (as in Peggy Lee's, 'Is That All There Is?')."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Keeper of the Canon," is an interesting piece about a changing-of-the-guard at the Norton Anthology. I was very snooty about this tome when I was in college, but secretly I wanted to have one just like everybody else's. It's true that I spent my collegiate years reading many of the books from which the Norton took its extracts, and I'm still appalled, in still moments, by the thought that there is not sufficient time in the undergraduate career for reading and discussing Great Books. If not there, where? And what else, really, should college students be doing?

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