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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are six novels and two books of poetry this week. The poets are Louise Glück and Harvey Shapiro, and they're both enthusiastically reviewed by Nicholas Christopher and David Barber, respectively. I'm not very familiar with either poet, but it would seem that they don't have much in common beyond the English language. In The Sights Along the Harbor, Mr Shapiro offers a "ledger" of brief but dense observation. In Averno, Ms Glück plumbs the Greek myths, particularly that of Persephone, to

take us where we don't want to go and bring us back as we never were before. Reminding us, too, that illumination is often accompanied by disillusionment, and that the spiritual awakening which allows us to see more clearly may well leave us in despair.

Two novels get strong reviews. Boris Fishman hails James Meek's The People's Act of Love as a "richly informed and imagined" novel about a remote Russian town in 1919, where true believers of different persuasions converge in "a suspenseful page turner." (This sounds like Louise Glück material, because I certainly don't want to go there.) Gary Kamiya likes Music From Big Pink: A Novella, by John Niven. Did you know that the publisher Continuum has launched a series of small books about "seminal" rock albums? Mr Niven's contribution is unusual in being fictional. He creates the character of a small-time drug dealer and insinuates him into the taping sessions; the only member of The Band who's fully drawn is its pianist, Richard Manuel (a good choice from the liability standpoint because he hanged himself in 1986). "What Music From Big Pink is really about," Mr Kamiya writes, "is loss." As in loss of youth, that ingredient essential to most mass culture.

That leaves one mixed review and three fairly negative ones. The mixed review is Lucinda Rosenfeld's taken on Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, by T Cooper. This appears to be a double-barreled production, and Ms Rosenfeld likes the first part, which tells the story of a family of Russian Jews who make their way to the New World but lose a son at Ellis Island. The mother, eventually convinced that the boy has grown up as Charles Lindbergh, is a narcissist so detestable that "the reader begins to wish her physical harm." Ms Cooper possesses "considerable descriptive powers," but she is also fairly meta; the second part of Lipshitz Six tells the story of one T Cooper, a present-day descendant of the Lipshitz immigrants, who goes to Texas to bury his parents; unlike the author, this fictional character bearing the same name is a man. "It is open to debate whether the two stories ... belong together," writes Ms Rosenfeld.

Finally, the three bad reviews. Erica Jong's review of In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant's latest brocade-athon, gets more acid with every paragraph, as it moves from what's good (vivid descriptions of Renaissance Italy) to what's bad, which is everything else. The language is chunkily anachronistic - Ms Jong points out that the language of historical fiction is necessarily anachronistic, "but we shouldn't be blatantly reminded of that." The plot meanders, writing about too many things without ever getting inside the title character's head. Indeed, Fiammetta Bianchini (note that both names signify colors) is "the mistiest of all the characters." (This might be a good moment to revisit Janet Maslin's crack about Ms Dunant's skills.) Elizabeth Judd feels much the same about What Caroline Knew, by Times styles reporter Caryn James.

The central flaw in this page turner is Caroline herself, whose exceptional allure is merely posited, never truly felt. A talented writer with a cinematic sense of scene, James has written a sepia-tinged novel about a scandal that holds little true sexiness.

Which isn't to say that these novels don't deliver exactly what's demanded by their readers.

The most wounding review goes a bit against the curve. It's unusual for the Times to give foreign fiction a genuinely negative review. I Loved You For Your Voice, by Selim Nassib (translated from the French by Alison Anderson), retells a true-life story about the great Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum and one of her lyricists, Ahmad Rami. The lyricist has a big crush on the singer, so much so that he's uncomfortable about the fact that other men can hear the words that he has written to/for her. Lorraine Adams appears to know this territory, and she advises thus:

Readers interested in the powerful story of Kalthoum's life would do better to read [Virginia] Danielson's intelligent and moving biography, The Voice of Egypt. There Om Kalthoum emerges in all her complexity and Ahmad Rami takes his proper place as merely noteworthy, one of many men liked to her over the years.

The review is accompanied by a shot of the smiling author - a cruel irony in the circumstances.

Naomi Wolf writes an omnibus review on the topic of today's fiction for teen girls. It's horrifying! According to Ms Wolf, the values of yore are inverted: more and better stuff = happiness; mean girls come out on top. If you have a teen in your house, you might want to take a look at her piece, which also features Justine Henning's recommended reading list.


The name of Javier Marías is new to me, but Christopher Benfey's review of Written Lives (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) makes me want to pick it up. He writes that it is "a collection of short and scintillating portraits ... inspired more by intriguing anecdotes and details than by a determination to capture basic autobiographical facts." It sounds like a treasure. "For Marías, great writers aren't riddles to be solved but paradoxes to be savored."

Garry Wills's What Jesus Meant, reviewed by Jon Meacham, is clearly a book that all Christians, particularly American Christians, ought to read. It is an unvarnished appraisal of the evangelical record that doubles as a "devotional exercise."

His is a kind of devotion, though, that engages heart and mind, to the ultimate benefit of both.

Carl Zimmer reviews two new books about climatic catastrophe, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, by Tim Flannery, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Mr Zimmer faults Ms Kolbert for deliberately back-burnering the "science" part of the problem, and Mr Flannery for seeking to explain too much with one theory. Despite their faults, however, he recommends both books. "Whatever their flaws, with any luck they may help force us to take more responsibility for our collective action."

I love to read obituaries, but I am not going to read a book about them, even a book as well-received as The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson. No matter what Jane and Michael Stern have to say about this topic, I've discovered for myself that the obituary is the journalistic form that stales the most quickly. That is, it becomes less the brief account of a life and more a core sample of the moment in which it was written.

This Changes Everything: the Relational Revolution in Psychology, by Christina Robb, gets a drubbing from Annie Murphy Paul. Of this account of an approach to psychology that was developed by three Boston women in the Seventies, among them Carol Gilligan, Ms Paul writes,

Robb has written what amounts to an authorized biography of the movement, with all the bland boosterism and careful avoidance of controversy the genre requires. The book has the feel of a project perhaps too long in the making; the author's lengthy immersion in the material, and her close identification with her subjects, has left her unable to discern these thinkers' broadest blind spot: an idealization of relationship that denies the very real value of autonomy.

I'm inclined to take a look at Ms Paul's own book, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves.

Sic transit: Once upon a time, Clarence King was a very famous American. I'm not sure how much about this surveyor, geologist, and fabulist I learned from Candice Millard's somewhat breathless review of The Explorer King: Adventures, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax - Clarence King in the Old West, by Robert Wilson. Dates would have been helpful, aside from a reference to "Bloody Kansas" and placement of the Hoax in the 1870s, the review is as preoccupied by King's fondness for whoppers as the man's original audience must have been. He seems to have tailored himself to appeal to his friends back East; educated at Yale, he cultivated a picaresque character nearly scalped by Indians here, narrowly missing a bad fall there. Wikipedia's brief entry clarifies things a bit.

This week's mystery is the review that begins on the cover. Kathryn Harrison has perhaps become a marquee name, but her coverage of Falling Through the Earth, by Danielle Trussoni, completely fails to convey a level of significance that would merit such placement, especially considering some other books covered in the same issue. Falling Through the Earth sounds like a merger of The Heart of Darkness and The Tender Bar.

"Two parts stubborn, one part insane," Daniel Trussoni believed he "could handle the worst of the [Vietnam] war had to offer and come out unscathed." Whether naive, self-destructive, or afflicted with hubris, he chose to do battle beneath the jungle floor, in a maze of sweltering, claustrophobic passages that connected arsenals, hospitals, and propaganda presses, as well as kitchens and bedrooms - sinister warrens whose entries were hidden and whose byways were mined and tripwired. If it sounds like hell, it was.

And of course Daniel Trussoni did not emerge unscathed. His daughter's book is an attempt to understand the damage that filled her father with demons. Ms Harrison is too busy summarizing Ms Trussoni's book to judge it.

The book that does belong on the cover is David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, not least because Pankaj Mishra, a writer fully at Mr Wallace's level, writes a real review! He assesses the passions that pull the writer toward a nostalgia for the good old days of meaningfulness. As you know, I believe that you can recreate those good old days just by staying away from your television set, but presumably this is not an option for real journalists. The glory of the review is that it casts light on a number of Mr Wallace's weaknesses without diminishing by one iota the pleasure that one takes in reading his work. Mr Mishra ventures to conclude that David Foster Wallace belongs "too much to his own times - the endless postmodern present - to persuasively explain his quarrel with them." Let's hope that Mr Wallace considers that possibility.

This week's goofiest book may well be it's most interesting-looking. It's Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatism Plan to Save America (or at least the Republican Party), by Rod Dreher. Take a breath - you've just read the book. Just imagine what is going to happen to this "movement," financially, when other kinds of Republicans read the following:

The core of the crunchy-con perspective is that "industrial capitalism and conventional left-wing bohemianism are two sides of the same coin." Both glorify consumerism and individual choice above all else, at the cost of undermining traditional mores and ways of life.

David O Kirkpatrick's respectful review, entitled "Moosewood Republicans," left me panting for the lost laughs that Crunchy Cons seems to promise. It's the Counterculture Redux - this time with real property.

Lee Siegel's Essay is a chain of hypothetical memos from fact-checkers to authors (including Yahweh). I found it a bit labored, but it does score some interesting hits about political correctness. 


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