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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The name of Charles Reznikoff is new to me. His shorter poems, edited by Seamus Cooney, have been collected in the Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975. Reznikoff was a lawyer by day but a very serious poet at all times. He summed up his ars poetica thus: "images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse; words pithy and plain; without the artifice of regular meters; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban." I'm attracted by everything that reviewer Joshua Clover has extracted, including the relatively well-known couplet

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies

A girder, still itself among the rubbish.


I'm also caught by Ligaya Mishan's favorable review of Thrity Umrigar's novel, The Space Between Us. Ms Umrigar is a Parsi from Mumbai, which tells of the relationship between a poor housemaid and her middle-class employer, a widow with good reason to think about "the unclean." I'm liking Indian literature more and more, not least because of a quiet local lilt that it's just possible I'm imagining. Gustave Flaubert's conundrum of a novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, has been newly translated by Mark Polizzotti. Left incomplete at the author's death, the novel - if that is what it is - rambles on about the adventures of two ambitious dimwits; Christopher Hitchens's solid review is entitled "I'm With Stupide." It does not make the novel sound like a fun read.

Flaubert is pitiless with his wretched creations, allowing them no moment of joy, or even ease. It is enough for them to turn their hands to a project for it to expire in chaos and slapstick, and after a while this, too, shows the shortcomings of the unpolished, because we can hear the sound of collapsing scenery before the stage has even been set. True bathos requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous, but no sooner have our clowns embarked on a project than we see the bucket of whitewash or the banana skin.

And then there would be the shame of reading this in English when I ought to be reading it in French. You should see the queue of books en français waiting to be read by moi.

Joyce Carol Oates's fiction is not on my list. Not, not, not, not, not. The quality of her prose is that of cake made from cake mix. Even reviewer Hillary Frey can't restrain herself from saying, in what's meant to be an enthusiastic review, that "this collection ... works best as a source of cheap thrills.


Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, is on my list. I've already written about its central idea here, and I don't know how much the book will add to that, but I recommend it sight-unseen. Professor Yoshino distinguishes between "covering" - minimizing the display of your personal peculiarities for the sake of maximizing your swim in the mainstream - and "passing," which is simply denying that you're peculiar. Norah Vincent has written very well, according to David Kamp's glowing review, about passing as a male in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. Ms Vincent's masquerade was entirely cosmetic, but perhaps because she wasn't trying to impress anyone that she was really a man, she was undistracted enough to see just how different public life is for men. Mr Kamp can only fault her for being too forgiving; but then Ms Vincent is a lesbian without a number-one reason to regret that the same men who would avoid eye contact out of respect for another man would indulge in that famous gaze were she in skirts. He does point out that

Conspicuously absent from Self-Made Man, though, are men leading full, contented lives.

Sounds like a very interesting read.

There are several works of biography and memoir. Sherwin B Nuland's Maimonides looks like an important book, one in which one intellectual Jewish physician examines the career of another, albeit one who flourished in the twelfth century. Eminent solicitor-advocate Anthony Julius writes that Dr Nuland "endeavors to find 'the common ground on which Maimonides can walk together with a man or woman today," but he regrets that "Nuland does not concern himself with the tension between what Maimonides stood for and what modern Judaism stands for."

Maimonides was concerned with maintaining the simple faith of the uneducated. The arduous business of philosophy, the esoteric understanding of religious truth, was not for them. He had no conviction that the profound truths of Judaism were within equal reach of all Jews. Maimonides was a bold and (to use an anachronism) fundamentally undemocratic thinker.

Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, by Michael Rosenthal, sounds grim. Review Thomas Mallon suspects that, in researching the life of a celebrated president of Columbia University whose celebrity dimmed the moment he died, in 1947, Mr Rosenthal "endured a long, depressing surprise as the vacuity of his subject fully dawned, or dimmed, on him."

Naysaying jabs from Walter Lippmann, H L Mencken and others never made a dent in this ermine-trimmed nullity while he was being chauffeured from one testimonial to another or writing the autobiography whose only revealing phrase may have been its title, Across the Busy Years.

Sorry as I am for Mr Rosenthal, but I'm not going to read this book. Nor am I going to read Between You and Me: A Memoir, by Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates. Even if Tara McKelvey had pronounced it the Book of the Year, which she most certainly doesn't, her review would not have moved me. What Mr Wallace has done to newscasting forces me to imagine cake mixes using no natural ingredients except fear and loathing. Another memoir that I probably won't read, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir, but this only because the subject of growing up in working class Hartford, known at another well-written Web log as "the Wretched Little City," is just too depressing. And in the Fifties, no less! 

Wyatt Mason gives Colin McGinn's The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, a very mixed review. As a philosopher at Rutgers, Mr McGinn is perhaps not best-qualified to deal with what seems indisputably to me to be a question of neurophysics, and indeed Mr Mason soon charges him with "twaddle." But he does not dismiss the book:

That few readers will have the patience to get past the book's first 60 turgid pages is doubly unfortunate, for when McGinn calms down he can be a lucid, rewarding writer. His chapter "The Metaphysics of the Movie Image" is as enlightening as the book's earlier pages are undistinguished. Staring at an actor on screen, McGinn notes that we feel "no alienation from a body like this, no division into me and it. It is the body as transformed into another type of material, an immaterial material.

If I encounter the book, I'll be sure to start checking it out well past the beginning.

A posthumous collection of the essays of Joan Didion's late husband could, in Edward Lewine's view, have been better edited; the editor of Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne is anonymous. More problematic is Dunne's preoccupation with Hollywood. I'm going to get this book anyway; if I'm lucky, I'll be able to dig out a copy of Dunne's novel, The Studio. I used to have one.

There are three books about money that I'm tempted to pass over. Gary Sperling's The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity is all but damned out of hand by Noam Scheiber for failing to acknowledge that the Bush Administration does not bargain in good faith, and that the political outlook that enabled Mr Sperling's former boss, Bill Clinton, to eliminate the deficit has vanished from Washington. On a more personal level, Neil Genzlinger reviews The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life (please! when will editors understand what a turn-off such titles are?), by Lee Eisenberg, and Dave Barry's Money Secrets, by Dave Barry. Mr Barry's book, of course, is a send-up of books such as Mr Eisenberg's. According to Mr Genzlinger, both books bear "shamelessly misleading subtitles."

Judith Shulevitz has written a thoughtful essay, "When Cosmologies Collide," in which she urges elite followers of Darwin to listen to themselves talk. In the course of reviewing two books - Eugenie C Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism and Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ms Shulevitz asks, "Could something as trivial as scientists' lack of self-awareness help explain why, nearly 150 years after Darwin, creationism in its various forms has become the most popular critique of science? Praising Mr Ruse for distinguishing between "evolution" and "evolutionism," she writes,

Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective. What gets billed as a war between hard science and mushy theology should rather be understood, says Ruse, as "a clash between two rival metaphysical world pictures."

As for the substance of each sides' debate, Ms Shulevitz praises Ms Scott's book for its explanation of "the scientific method, which many invoke but few describe vividly."

Paul Beatty's Essay, "Black Humor," is a call to lighten up on the gravitas thing in black literature. After listing writers whom he only discovered as grown man - Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, Bob Kaufman, Bert Williams, and even W E B Du Bois - Mr Beatty laments,

I wish I'd been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would've been comforting to know that I wasn't the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.



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