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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Before getting down to work today, I have to share a blurb that appears in an ad for Chuck Palahniuk's collection of stories, Haunted, now in paper with a "Glow in the Dark Cover"! The Miami Herald's critic says,

Reading a Palahniuk novel is like getting zipped inside a boxer's heavy bag while the author goes to work on you, pounding you until there is nothing left but a big bag of bones and blood and pain.

I don't think that anything from Ancient Rome equals this debasement of intellect.

We'll begin, as usual, with poetry.

In today's Review, we find a Poetry Chronicle in which two men cover ten books. Eric McHenry:

Black Lab, by David Young. "Young is, in many respects, a conventional poet, but conventions are easier to disparage than the work a serious artist does within them." So true. It's a nice point, and it tells us something about Mr Young.

Hapax: Poems, by A E Stallings. "'Hapax,' according to the book's epigraph, is a Greek word meaning 'once, once only, once for all.' What's most appealing in Stallings's poems, then, is a sense of hapaxity - an imaginative empathy with those whose lone moment is long gone..."

Capacity, by James McMichael. "Everything, from immigration patterns to heartsickness, is described in the same objective, almost clinical tone - a strange and wonderful choice, lending disproportionate power to the subtlest gestures." The verses quoted are intriguing, to me, anyway. The point is that they're there. 

Hometown For An Hour: Poems, by Jennifer Rose. "Rose's ingenious comparisons don't add up to much more than stacks of themselves. But over the course of the collection, her restlessness - both her physical divagations and her mind's associative flitting - becomes increasingly affecting." That's good to know, because I don't read books of poetry through. Even if I ought to do so.

Living Things: Collected Poems, by Anne Porter. The widow of artist and critic Fairfield Porter "was born in 1911, when

Large patches of the former century

Still lay about

Like snow in April."


Joel Brouwer:

Look There: New and Selected Poems, by Agi Mishol (translated by Lisa Katz). "Lisa Katz's translations from the Hebrew are occasionally jarring. ... On the whole, though, Katz captures Mishol's subtle combination of tenacity and mischief..."

Astoria: Poems, by Malena Mörling. After complaining about repetitions and derivative writing, Mr Brouwer writes, "So why did I enjoy this book so much? It must be its utter sincerity. Mörling's dreamy amazement at the world's weird plenty never feels affected or calculated." Again, good to know, because sincerity isn't something that I'm looking for in verse.

Strike/Slip, by Don McKay. "These exuberantly musical and shrewd poems are ecological in the fullest sense of the word: they seek to elucidate our relationships with our fragile dwelling places both on the earth and in our own skins."

Poem For The End Of Time: And Other Poems, by Noelle Kocot. "Kocot has two bad habits. She harries her nouns with flocks of modifiers, and she sometimes tries to pass of a congeries of portentous nonsense as inscrutable profundity, to bathetic effect." Ouch!

The First Inhabitants of Arcadia: Poems, by Christopher Bursk. "If you're looking for skeptical post-structuralist experiments with language's unstable elements, though, look elsewhere. Bursk has bottomless faith in language and its capacities to enlighten and delight." So I do. "His poems celebrating the alphabet bring to mind not free jazz or 12-tone compositions but, at their witty best, Cole Porter. (

What if

there were nothing loopy

in the language, no

va-va voom? No magic

broom. No swooping wings?

No dark lagoon?

No fingernail


On the whole, I have to confess to sensing a desire on the reviewers' part to like all the books.

Readers of The Sixteen Pleasures (1994) will be happy to know that Robert Hellenga is back, with Philosophy Made Simple. Rebecca Newburger Goldstein notes that the central figure of the new book is the father of the heroine of the last one. "[T]he bood news is that this decent man has got enough waywardness to make for another fine, if quieter, novel." I'm somewhat troubled by the presence of an elephant named Norma Jean, however, and wish that Ms Newberger had said a bit more than that. I want to be absolutelysure, for example, that Norma Jean, though she's "soulful" and a painter who puts her trunk to new uses, does not speak English.

That's the sort of assurance that Jason Goodwin provides in his review of James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder. He assures me, that is, that this is totally not a book for me. "For all its philosophical high jinks, literary pyrotechnics, expositions and asides, the wrapper of a story, which up to here has been so lively and amusing, suddenly sound crinkly and thin." The review also notes that Newton's great work, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica is a character in this book. Nor does Joe Ashby Porter's The Near Future sound like my kind of novel. David Kirby writes, "Porter's narrative style is vaguely cubist, with words often turned at slight angles to one another." Perhaps the book belongs in the Poetry Chronicle! Nor does The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, a novel set in remote Namibia, by Peter Orner, sound like my cup of tea. "He has written a starvation diary about desire, with as much sexual tension as a bodice-buster. The deprivation gets so extreme that Orner plays it for laughs." Good grief - but thanks, Mark Schone, for letting me know. Julia Alvarez's Saving the World tells the stories of two women in two eras, and Hillary Frey suggests that it might have been better had one of those stories been dumped. "It's difficult to write interesting fiction about someone struggling with the writing process, and it's practically impossible when the author herself has created such derivative characters." Ms likes the other half of Saving the World, though.

Sharing the page with the last review is Chelsea Cain's report of Philippa Stockley's The Edge of Pleasure. Ms Cain has a lot of trouble with this novel, because the man over whom two interesting women fight is "not sexy at all." There is certainly something in the British water that makes unprepossessing lugs romantically appealing to certain women; in this country, they would be pursued icily for their money. Ms Cain is wrong, I think, to fault Ms Stockley. It's a cultural thing. 

Finally, there Caryn James's review of Wendy Wasserstein's posthumous Elements of Style. The late playwright's first and last novel, Elements will undoubtedly be read by her many admirers.

Although the nvoel doesn't quite pull of that drastic shift from satire to tragedy, it's generally a sleek, entertaining read that shares much of the wit and astuteness of Wasserstein's plays... But it's less polished that her plays and essays, written with the clumsiness of an author who hasn't mastered the novel's form.


The family paper that can't print the word "bullshit," even when it's in the title of a thoughtful, best-selling essay by a Princeton philosopher, must be autistic when it comes to images. Blasting a sexpot photo of Ava Gardner - wearing (from top to bottom) white beads, a leopard-print bathing suit, and fishnet stockings, provocatively and curvaceously coiled on a leopard-print banquette, her bust arched and one hand thrown behind her head - seems, somehow, a really and truly inappropriate gesture on the part of such a prudish organization. It has nothing to do with Peter Bogdanovich's review of Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," by Lee Server. Mr Bogdanovich likes the book and writes a bit about its merits, but mostly he sells the book by selling the subject, whom he met once in London. He speaks of Gardner's great frankness, of her "intelligence, easy charm, kindness and steadfast individuality." In this context, the pinup is demeaning. Even if Gardner made only two good pictures, The Killers and Mogambo. Adding to the insult is another come-hither bit of cheesecake inside.

Erica Jong is a different kind of sexpot, the kind who writes about it. Ron Powers comes down very hard on Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, not least because the memoir purports to be a writer's guide for beginners.

And here is Erica Jong's central writerly self-delusion: "what we all live for ... is what Henry Miller calls 'the dictation.' That's when the words take off on a frolic of their own, when you don't seem to be writing or thinking but rather taking down some divine dictation."

How true!!!

No, how false.

Writers don't "all" live for "the dictation." As advice for "fledgling" writers, the assertion hovers between irresponsible and absurd. Writers, good ones, build their work on a foundation of curiosity and active, patient investigation of their subject. And they build that work word by laborious word. And then they revise it.

Thomas Brothers has written a book about Louis Armstrong's New Orleans. Jason Berry spends most of his review encapsulating Mr Brothers's story, but he does conclude helpfully,

Certain passages on musical technique will make some readers skim. Still, this is a superb history and a rocking good read.

Another cultural history in this week's review is News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Light Between the Wars, by Ronald Weber. Reviewer Marc Weingarten picks out a few of Mr Weber's more amusing subjects, not the Hemingways but the "B-list reporters, who make for better copy anyway," and builds his review on them. Only at the end does he fault Mr Weber for being too sparing with "critical analysis." Another newspaper book is The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba, and Herbert L Matthews, by Anthony DePalma. Jonathan Alter's review leaves little doubt that Matthews was far too invested in his material to produce sound reporting; a friendship with Arthur Hays Sulzberger clouded matters firmly. Mr DePalma's objective is to scrub away decades of invective-based assessments by conservatives and Cuban exiles, among whom you would think widespread the belief that, without Matthews, Mr Castro would never have amounted to anything. Mr Alter agrees that this is simply not the case.

Elizabeth Royte gives Marq de Villiers's Windswept: The Story of Wind and Weather, a good, if not quite enthusiastic review. "If you can get through the tough parts," she writes, "- which, let's face it, are mandatory in this sort of book - there's ample reward." She appears to agree with the author's endorsement of wind power; so do I.

Jacob Heilbrunn calls Philip Jenkins's Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America a "humdinger."

Dismissing the notion that conservative elites are duping the unwashed in the hinterlands into supporting Republican Party, he argues for something of a return to the paranoid thesis [of Richard Hofstadter]. but with a twist. Jenkins's United States is, at bottom, a country of scared ninnies, masking its fears with an outward show of bravado. Instead of manipulating the public, conservative leaders from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush have simply responded to its anxieties.

"Pandered" would be my word for what conservative leaders have "simply" done. In any case, as I am already persuaded of the correctness of Mr Jenkins's analysis, I don't have to read his book, which draws heavily on the evidence of popular culture.

It has been interesting to watch Michael Pollan's interests move from ornamental land-use (Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991?) to agribusiness, but whereas I read the early books with zest, not least because I had a garden, it's precisely because I'm an omnivore that I don't want to know more about the conditions under which steers are turned into beef. In the diet department, I've written myself off as a hopeless dinosaur, glad that I don't have the responsibility of bringing up a child to greet the coming new world order in food. David Kamp gives The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals a good review, faulting Mr Pollan (whose writing, I can attest, is always interesting) only for being "too nice." The real problem with American food is that it's overpriced, in a way that forces all but the affluent to eat poorly. As such, it neatly parallels the inequities of our health care.

Nigerian playwright and political activist Wole Soyinka has written a second book of memoirs, covering most his adult life, entitled You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir. Norman Rush finds the book "a little strange" in its lacunae, and concludes, "For all the determined hopefulness of Soyinka's title, it's still dark in Nigeria." Alan Taylor's The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution touches on the grim solution to a similar sort of strife as that covered by Mr Soyinka. Richard Brookhiser tells Mr Taylor's story and then faults the author for not having rendered his material more "digestible." He ends with a plea that historians try to recapture something of the literary panache of Francis Parkman. I did not find either of these reviews particularly helpful.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "The Party's Over," is about the decline of the book party. I have always thought that the mixture of books and alcohol can't possibly work (or be interesting); the publication of a book seems to be the thinnest of pretexts for gathering the literati. I cannot imagine that this essay is of interest to anybody outside New York's publishing world who isn't also a literary gossip.


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Quick point: I would argue that American food -- that which is commercially produced -- is underpriced via lobby and subsidy, resulting in the same socially-based nutritional divisions you so aptly identify. Not having had the chance this week to read the Book Review, may I express my gratitude for your lucid synopses and reviews of the reviews, and compliment you on the new color-coded format. Makes for very easy perusal!

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