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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

We have nine novels this week, five of them in Etelka Lehoczky's Fiction Chronicle. Good reviews go to

The Bird is a Raven, by Benjamin Lebert and translated by Peter Constantine. Mr Lebert is something of a prodigy, having published his first novel in his teens. Now 23, he gives us a conversation between strangers on a train. "Lebert explores the limits of trust, blending broad humor and sudden bursts of melodrama while maintaining a sense of delicately balanced tension." Sounds good.

Billie Morgan, by Joolz Denby. The memoir of a fictional "aging biker babe" in the North of England. "Denby's other characters aren't as full-fleshed as Billie," writes Ms Lehoczky - but why should they be, in a memoir? - "but she's got enough personality to carry the novel." Given my interest in motorcycles and their owners, this is a novel that I would read only if commanded to do so by a very close relative.

Becoming Strangers, by Louise Dean. This is about a bad vacation, centering two couples at a luxury resort in the Caribbean. One of the four principals is dying of cancer and in search of some meaning. Like this character, Ms Lehoczky writes, the author "never quite finds deeper meaning. But Becoming Strangers is still a diverting trip.

Not-so-favorable reviews go to

Against Gravity, by Farnoosh Moshiri. Ms Lehoczky doesn't say what this novel is about, but she hates the characters even as she finds them unbelievable. The author "shares their belief that their extraordinary experiences make them interesting people."

Time Won't Let Me, by Bill Scheff. Mr Scheff is a columnist at Sports Illustrated, which is not a plus. His book could be about people I knew - prep school friends who formed a successful garage band in 1965, cutting an album before the inevitable breakup. (If there's anybody else out there who remembers Davy and the Badmen, please holler!) Now approaching sixty, the four old friends decide to stage a comeback - hugely embarrassing their children. Ouch.

Liesl Schillinger calls Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov "subtle and vertiginous." I think that's good. The novel is about the downfall of a hack art critic as the dissolution of the Soviet Union approaches. Instructed by higher-ups to write an essay praising Marc Chagall, Ms Grushin's protagonist balks, suspecting a trick that will lead to his deportation. But it is not a trick, and, soon out of a job, Sukhanov falls prey to the radioactivity of his years of self-serving dishonesty. I'm going to read this book. I may also read Christmas in Paris 2002, by Ronald K Fried. According to reviewer Charles Wilson, this is a dismantling à la Balzac of pampered American lives, with an appealing Parisian setting. Also appealing is Joe Keenan's third novel, My Lucky Star. Fans of the first two, the side-splitting Blue Heaven and the somewhat less hilarious Putting on the Ritz will rejoice to hear that Gilbert Selwyn is still up to no good and still dragging Philip Cavanaugh and Clair Simmons into frightful imbroglios - this time, in Hollywood. Goodness, the possibilities! Reviewer Mark Kamine files a few complaints, but that won't stop me. I'll just wait for the QPBC edition.

Nothing in Blake Bailey's review of Over the Rainbow? Hardly: Collected Short Seizures, a collection of the late prose of Chandler Brossard (1922-93) edited by Steven Moore, nothing in this review suggests that its subject is a book that I would enjoy reading. Brossard Who Walk in Darkness, published in French before it appeared in English, has been hailed as "a pioneering work of Beat fiction." The present miscellany, which includes pornographic parodies of fairy tales, seems eminently missable. Mr Bailey concludes,

It's like listening to a lonely man mumbling to himself - and loneliness, it seems was very much to the point. "I've never felt comfortable with other people at all," Brossard admitted toward the end of his life. And so perhaps he kept company with the voices in his head, his various babbling personae, and wrote it all down for the benefit of some possible kindred soul.


The big story this week is Garrison Keillor's emphatically unfavorable review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy and translated by Charlotte Mendel. Nearly every sentence in Mr Keillor's put-down is sarcastic, and much of it is funny. Be sure to read it. But don't let it dissuade you from reading American Vertigo, which is a lively look at the United States by a sympathetic outsider. Mr Keillor would seem to have been hand-picked to misunderstand BHL's assessment of what's distinctive about American culture; the writer and radio star has built a career on preferring the mundane. (Repeat after me: bay-ahsh-ell, and try not to say "béchamel.") I am going to read this book in French, when the "original" appears in a couple of months.

Another book on my list is Eric Foner's Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. This enormously sad book is about the mangled and untrue account of Reconstruction with which America salved its post-Reconstruction conscience, largely by falling back on the idea that the former slaves were not fully-developed human beings. James Goodman's review is almost as sad:

Four decades and untold political abuse later, our federal government is again held in low esteem. Many wonder if it is even competent to do what it used to do best: wage war. I would like to think that the prejudice at the heart of the old history of Reconstruction would prevent its revival. But as long as Americans continue to see government simply as a problem, we won't know much, or care, about Reconstruction.

There are a few books about Conservative America. Donald T Critchlow's Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade appears, in Judith Warner's view, to have been written by a camp-follower. Like Betty Friedan, I'd like to see Ms Schlafly burned at the stake for her opposition to ERA and other initiatives, but I acknowledge that this is a grudging way to respect her importance. I would much rather see Ms Schlafly lose her audience. Adrian Wooldridge gives Richard Reeves's President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination a favorable review, even though it adds little to our knowledge of this strange man who acted at being an actor. In My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front,  Jonathan Raban, a writer whom I've always admired, racks his brains in search of an explanation for the political success of the Bush Administrations in the teeth of failure and disaster; according to reviewer John Leland, Mr Raban doesn't understand how "infantilized" the American electorate has become. Nevertheless, this is a book that I look forward to reading.

One sign of the extent to which we've become infantilized is the apparent need for two collections of essays about torture. That any amount of valuable, even life-saving information can ever justify the infliction of pain and humiliation on the source of that information is a proposition that I refuse to entertain, period. If this makes me a sissy, then I'm happy to be a sissy. The alternative is to be a thug, period once again. Lance Morrow's largely thoughtful review of The Torture Debate in America, edited by Karen J Greenberg, and Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever Okay?, edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, with Amy D Bernstein, made me sick: what debate? How can there be a debate about torture? What on earth has happened to my country?

Wild, creative types are represented by new biographies of Christopher Marlowe and John Cassavetes. Review Philip Lopate feels that journalist Marshall Fine is too great a fan, in Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, to judge the filmmaker's work. I'm inclined to agree with Mr Lopate:

There are revelations in Cassavetes's films that show with startling clarity the map of human confusion, but there are also scenes where actors fumble and bluster through embarrassing shtick.

As for Park Honan's Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, I wonder at the folly of attempted the book-length treatment of a man about whom we know enough to fill no more than five pages of print. Michael Feingold particularly faults Mr Honan for refusing to acknowledge the sheer cruel cynicism that runs through all of Marlowe's powerful drama. (I wish I could find my collection thereof, by the way. If you borrowed it, please return it.)

John C Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has written a diatribe about the sorry state of Wall Street's ethics, in The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. Jeff Madrick writes that while Mr Bogle's analysis of the situation is astute, his recommendations are wishful and fuzzy - for the simple reason that he won't face up to the fact that governmental deregulation is the true culprit here. On a more personal note, Liz Perle's Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash elicits the polite but firm scorn of Ariel Levy.

What's frustrating about Perle's tropism toward generalizations and evasions is that her subject matter and, at times, her writing about her own fiscal experiences and feelings are so interesting. But whenever she gets too close to nuance and specificity, Perle seems to run for cover under pronouncements about womankind rather than continue on the unmarked path toward insight.

This leaves two books: Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, by John Lahr, and A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, by Susanne Antonetta. I've enjoyed Mr Lahr's insidery New Yorker pieces (Mr Lahr is the son of the Cowardly Lion), but not quite enough to reread them. Reviewer Ada Calhoun writes of Mr Lahr's interview with Laurence Fishburne that the writer "sounds more like a prom date than a leading drama critic." As for A Mind Apart, Polly Morrice's review suggests the  quirky and inconsistent poeticizing of bipolar disorder and autism. I remain stubbornly convinced that true creativity arises, when it does, despite and not because of serious mental disturbance.

Jeffrey Rosen's Essay, "Judicial Exposure," is a sensible call for restraint to memoir-writing justices. "Too much revelation may undermine the public's respect for judges as apolitical authorities." Amen.


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The Bird is a Raven is a conscious effor to be trendy, like an old woman wearing a belly ring. It's terrible - read it to hate it.

The Keillor review is priceless. I haven't enjoyed a book review as much in ages. Nothing could get me to read the book....

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