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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Poet Robert Creeley, who died last year, left behind a a "folder of poems" and an essay on Walt Whitman. According to D H Tracy, On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay shows how far Creeley had come from his obstreperous youth (and no farther). Mr Tracy makes the essay on Whitman sound worth reading. "I'm not convinced that Whitman's mind, or any writer's, ever disappears in this fashion, but the essay is not so much an act of persuasion as a way of remaining agonized."

Sharing the page with Mr Tracy's review is Christopher Corbett's enthusiastic review of Emily Barton's Brookland. This novel, which posits the construction of a Brooklyn Bridge long before Roebling's - an outrageous offense upon any decent sense of history and grown-up fact - is definitely not on my list, but Mr Corbett, not as troubled as I am by confusion about the line separating fiction from fantasy, lays out reasons why like-minded readers might enjoy Brookland. That makes for a good review.

Solidly within the fictional fold is the subject of this week's cover story, Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (translated by Sandra Smith). Némirovsky, a Russian who thrived on the French literary scene between the wars, managed to write two of a projected five novellas about the German occupation of France before she was shipped off to Auschwitz and death. A surviving daughter lugged around a leatherbound notebook without looking at it for fifty years, which is why this remarkable book is appearing only now. Paul Grey's lengthy review makes the remarkable nature of Suite Française very clear:

The date of Némirovsky's death induces disbelief. It means, it can only mean, that she wrote the exquisitely shaped and balanced fiction of Suite Française almost contemporaneously with the events that inspired them, and everyone knows such a thing cannot be done. In his astute cultural history, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell describes the invariable progression - from the hastily reactive to the serenely reflective - of writings about catastrophes: "The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as "diary" or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible.

We can now see that Némirovsky achieved just such coherence and irony with an ex post factor view of, at most, a few months. 

Nobelist José Saramago does not fare quite so well at the hands of Terrence Rafferty, who writes of Seeing, the sequel to Blindness (translated by Magaret Jull Costa), that "[a] wise man would have left most of the pages of the novel's first half blank." Also dismissed for lack of substance is Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue. Reviewer James Campbell comes away thinking, "It's hard to think of a reason not to read the Good Book instead."

There is no irony and no surprise, and the stages of the plot are as well worn as the path trodden in any village Passion play.

Parents and children are the subjects of two books under review. my latest grievance. Reviewer Eve Conant likes the story but not the novel that Marti Leimbach gives us in Daniel Isn't Talking. A toddler turns feral after a vaccination, thereby destroying his parents' marriage. "[T]he characters seem to be itching to get off the page and onto the set; layers of personality are sacrificed for plot expediency and straight-to-the-screen dialogue." (It reminds me of Dan Brown's ultimately ineffectual casting in The DaVinci Code - something about "Harrison Ford in tweeds.) Liesl Schillinger, who usually does her job, writes a book report instead of a book review about My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman. The plot is summarized (at length), with nary a comment about the book itself. She does call it "lovable, psychologically intricate," but doesn't back up her judgment.

Memoirs of a Muse, by Lara Vapnyar, gets a tepid review from Ken Kalfus. Of the author, a Russian emigrée, Mr Kalfus writes,

She's clearly a talented writer, possessed of ample humor and insight and a humane sensibility, but her own epic literary achievement lies somewhere in the future. ... she awaits her own strong draft of writerly inspiration.

Finally, there is Stephen Harrigan's Challenger Park, enthusiastically reviewed by Thomas Mallon. What I couldn't tell from the review was whether someone with no interest in the details of our space program would get anything out of this novel.

On balance, a collection of good reviews, whether favorable or not.


Sherwin B Nuland exploits his review of Eric R Kandel's In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind to rattle on about how the elimination of its Jewish population diminished Vienna. This is gratuitous at best. Perhaps Dr Nuland doubts that the Book Review's readership is up to the details of this "magnificently panoramic autobiography': in fact, he says as much. Nevertheless he recommends the book.

If there is another book that does a better job of demonstrating how biological research is done, or of telling the story of a brilliant scientist's career, I don't know it.

More solidly grounded in World War II is Sheila Fitzpatrick's review of Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale. Ms Fitzpatrick notes that the author expected to find that the glowing patina on the national myth of the Great Patriotic War would be bruised and dented by the end of the Soviet Union, but that, while Ms Merridale found signs of revisionism at official levels, the soldiers whom she interviewed were as gung-ho as ever. "[I]t is to Merridale's great credit that she lets us listen to what her veterans had to say, even when it wasn't what she herself wanted to hear.

At the other end of hardship, Bill Barich has written A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance, and the Irish, reviewed by Max Watman. That this might be a book for me (in the right frame of mind) is indicated by the following observation:

Barich took the daydream as a model for this expansive chronicle. He casually travels the sod, writing discursively, as if the book itself were a jump race and it, too, would unfold leisurely.

Decidedly less appealing is Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. The review is so stuffed with eyepopping aspects of "the raucous saga of South Florida" that I checked twice to see if Carl Hiaasen were the reviewer. In fact, Guy Martin is. Mr Martin is careful to note the importance of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the cause of protecting the "River of Glades."

The most discomfiting review is Ross Douthat's piece on The Man On Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill, by Molly Worthen. Mr Douthat believes that Mr Hill, who used to write speeches for Henry Kissinger, is an executive assistant, not a grand strategizer, whose secret is silence.

Charlie doesn't talk too much," a friend tells her, and "that's part of why great men like him."

Unlike Mr Douthat's penetrating review, Sophie Harrison's piece on Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhood, by Martin Booth, is a book report with a paragraph of bottom-line-favorable review at the end. Laura Miller is arch about Edmund White's My Lives, permitting her loathing of the book to peep out through the tiniest cracks, before wrapping up with this:

This kind of cleverness is compatible with sentimentality  but not with depth, and, alas, one of the signal traits of a charmer is a reluctance to talk about himself. Wit and charm this memoir has in abundance, but that, I'm afraid, is not to its credit.

People who respond to something with the explanation that it's bad precisely because of its good qualities rarely have anything important to say.

On the facing page is Charles McGrath's favorable review of another gay writer, Alan Bennett. Mr McGrath is deft here:

At times, Untold Stories takes on an almost Larkinesque note of loss and diminishment and of everything just going to hell. But where Larkin's gloom is deep and persistent, almost pornographic at times, Bennett's is more like the weather, apt to break at any moment.

I have never read Alan Ginsberg's Howl - I'm far too bourgeois - so it's surprising to encounter The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later, a "tribute album" edited by Jason Shinder. Greil Marcus's review is mixed at best.

Rather than "critical texts," Shinder wanted "personal narratives" from well-known writers on "how the poem changed their lives": thus the word "I" appears in the first or second line of more than half the pieces here. The famous first lines of Howl are quoted from at least 11 times.

Mr Marcus singles out Luc Sante's contribution for particular praise.

Alexandra Jacobs accords a grudgingly favorable review to Bonnie Fuller's The Joys of Much Too Much: Go for the Big Life - the Great Career, the Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You've Ever Wanted (Even if You're Afraid You Don't Have What It Takes). It's unclear from the review how much of Much Too Much is "pep-talking" and how much is memoir. Ms Jacobs notes that Ms Fuller is a "widely reviled Manhattan media figure."

Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle rounds up the usual number of books with nothing in common.

Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, by Janice Erlbaum. "Eventually, she did what many adults never manage: she grew up."

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England, 1327-1330. Ms McKelvey sums up the story - one of the most sordid in English history, and therefore the most truly compelling that I came across when I took English History at Blair - without really capturing Mr Mortimer's book. She does praise his "terrific detective work," though.

Rubble: Unearthing the History of Demolition, by Jeff Byles. According to Ms McKelvey, Mr Byles "makes fun of a CNN anchor who says, 'Every time there's an implosion of a building, we'll bring it to you, yes, we will, because it's neat.' Unfortunately, though, that about sums up Rubble."

Rome, Inc: The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation, by Stanley Bing. Asked by the author, "What Have We Learned?", Ms McKelvey tartly replies, "Well, I learned that some corporate executives think whatever they write is interesting or, even more of a stretch, amusing to others.

Never Drank the Kool-Aid: Essays, by Touré. This review is more quote than comment, but somewhere in the fog I gathered that pop culture is the underlying theme here.

In this week's essay, "Where Have All the Strivers Gone?" Joseph Finder, self-described "commercial" writer, deplores the disappearance of ambition from modern literary fiction. Reviewing the titles on my "Books on the Side" menu at Portico, I see so many books that involve the quest for material self-improvement that I wonder about Mr Finder's acquaintance with recent serious novels. Brick Lane, Pattern Recognition, The Line of Beauty, The Impressionist, Truth and Consequences, Good Faith - I'll stop there - all involve pots of elbow grease. And let's not forget The Corrections, which rarely strays far from assessing the costs of ambition.


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