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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The poetry reviewed in this week's review is by writers established for their work in other genres, but reviewer David Kirby notes that both Mary Karr and Jim Harrison have published several books of poetry before - in Harrison's case, nine of them. Curiously, both of these tough-guy writers have imbued their new collections with an aura of the sacred. The very title of Ms Karr's Sinners Welcome: Poems underscores her discovery of the power of prayer; Mr Kirby claims Hopkins as "her unacknowledged master ... who also used prayer as a booster rocket for poetry rather than a replacement for it." Mr Harrison is a poet of the majestically open American West, and something of a pantheist. The extract from Saving Daylight quoted suggests that he is also attentive to the little failings of his aging body. Mr Kirby leads me to expect that both books will make a hit with readers in search of unsentimental inspiration.

This week's cover story goes to Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, very enthusiastically reviewed by Walter Kirn. Very:

Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.

Having read a portion of the novel that appeared in The New Yorker recently, I must say that Mr Kirn has got it right - although I myself do not find anything exalting in the posture of perspiring victors. Mr Kirn is also right to place Absurdistan in the tradition of big Russian novels. One line of the review deserves to be highlighted simply for its perspicacity about the United States:

During his collegiate heyday [in the US], he gorged at the American buffet, slurping up rap music, psychotherapy and the sky's-the-limit complacent optimism that we take for granted as a birthright but that Misha sees for what it is: a glorious geo-historical accident.

The Review is graced by no fewer than three photographs of the very unkempt Mr Shteyngart.

Benjamin Markovits gives Canadian Michael Winter a near-miss, almost-favorable review for The Big Why, a novel about Rockwell Kent. Kent has become the poster boy for idealistic artists who aren't as good as they think they are or need to be. His work tips uneasily on the line between art and illustration, and its longing for cold purity is both endearing and exasperating. Mr Markovits believes that "the sum of the book falls just short of the virtue of its parts," and that perhaps Mr Winter's most serious miscalculation was to tell his story in Rockwell's first-person voice. This is the sort of review that would make me go back and rework my novel. But nobody goes back and reworks anything nowadays.

David Handler, the writer behind Lemony Snicket, has published Adverbs, something for the grownups, and James Poniewozik calls it "neither a novel nor, really a story collection: it is a concept album."

What saves Adverbs from Handler's unconvincing dystopian themes is his exuberantly funny voice and his ability to lard his stories with details that return, pages later, with multiplied resonance.

Not for me they wouldn't. I'd like to linger for a moment on an image that Mr Poniewozik quotes:

A Manhattan traffic artery [?] is "cabs and cabs and cabs and the occasional car that wasn't a cab so the whole thing looked like a scarcely-been-touched ear of corn."

I hate such strained and gratuitous metaphors, and I refuse to applaud them as "good writing."

Gregory Cowles reviews new fiction by five women in his Fiction Chronicle. Or at least that's what I thought until I googled Starling Lawrence, senior editor at WW Norton and not the recipient of a favorable review. In thumbnails:

Family and Other Accidents, by Shari Goldhagen. "[H]er book reminds you that simply paying attention is one of the things literature can do best.

The Lightning Keeper, by Starling Lawrence. "There are loving descriptions of machinery ... But novels aren't turbines, and spinning your wheels isn't always the best way to generate energy. For a novel about electricity, The Lightning Keeper is disappointingly static."

The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Denn. "The story is a little too schematic, and Dean's writing a little uneven, but The Madonnas of Leningrad is admirably humane in its determination to restore the dignity Alzheimer's strips away."

We Are All Welcome Here, by Elizabeth Berg. After implicitly chastising Ms Berg for being an Oprah-winner, Mr Cowles writes, "Berg writes too superficially to escape the familiar confines of the coming-of-age novel, yet her strong descriptive skills add a veneer of authenticity to this slight, charming tale..."

Once Upon A Day, by Lisa Tucker. Even worse: "This is fiction as self-help manual, its life-affirming message about as subtle as a kiss from a sledgehammer."

On the whole, Mr Cowles appears to be an unsympathetic critic - unsympathetic, that is, to all but one of these writers' aims. I do wish that the editors of the Book Review would take more care to avoid such assignments. I, for example, would be the wrong person to ask for a review of Joyce Carol Oates's fiction, which I simply can't read. Cathleen Schine's initially favorable review of High Lonesome: New & Selected Stories 1966-2006 enumerates the reasons why I can't stand this writer's work. "[T]here is, first of all, no room for humor in Oates's intense, fevered world."

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Oates's intense and violent world of struggle is the absence of suspense. Her language lunges forward at a tense, breathless pace, as if she were writing a thriller, but Oates is actually kind of a fatalist. Characters often question whether they have free will, and with good reason: they don't.

What I don't understand is how, having said that, Ms Schine can proceed to laud High Lonesome. But she doesn't, so I don't have to.


This week's woo-hoo must-read review is by Kurt Andersen. Mr Andersen tosses Gay Talese's second volume of memoirs, A Writer's Life, into the food processor and pulses it to shreds. Here is the merest nugget.

Even more surprising, given that Talese was the New Journalist celebrated for deep reporting rather than virtuosic writing, is the paucity of well-observed moments. At the Upper East side restaurant Elio's, for instance, he sees fit to note that one night he sat "near a large table where the talk is all about book publishing and real estate prices in the Hamptons." Really? In Beijing, he decides his interpreter is lousy, but keeps the examples of poor translations to himself. Talese spent five months in China, but there's scant evidence here of what he saw or heard or smelled or felt.

In short, an epic of nombrilismeRead the review.

Jennifer Senior is far kinder to Joe Klein's Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid. But she remarks that the earlier portions of the book are freighted with insider arcana that Mr Klein fails to make interesting in a larger context. Altogether, she conveys the impression that, simply by taking such good snapshots of the political process today - how consultants shape campaigns - Politics Lost may be indispensable reading.

Jacob Heilbrunn gives Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R Gordon and Bernard E Trainor, a very favorable review, but at the last minute makes a comment that insures that I won't read the book.

Indeed, Gordon and Trainor's book suggests a conclusion they don't draw: the initial impulse for war may have had little to do with Iraq itself. Like the Western votaries of Communism in the 30's, who projected their various fantasies about utopia onto Spain or the Soviet Union, Administration officials seem to have viewed Iraq as a kind of abstract proving ground for their pet theories about warfare, terrorist or democratization. They saw the Iraq they wanted to see. Their delusions bring to mind the British historian AJP Tay'or's observation that the dangerous thing isn't when statesmen cannot live up to their principles. It's when they can.

It would be to explore that conclusion that I would read Cobra II, which otherwise, and aside from a few damning personal details (At one meeting, General Tommy Franks yawned in contempt of the prospect of casualties), seems to make a case with which I'm already familiar, thanks to the work of Seymour Hersh.

Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present, by Peter Hessler, gets a glowing review from China-specialist Jonathan Spence, who suggests that you need only glance at two particular chapters to be "hooked."

Serenely confident, he has a marvelous sense of the intonations and gestures that give life to the moment; he knows when to join in the action and when simply to wait for things to happen.

Mr Spence helpfully notes the two-dimensional structure of Oracle Bones, with sequential chapters about current affairs interrupted from time to time by reflections on aspects of China's long history. I can't think why I missed Mr Hessler's work in The New Yorker.

There are two musical biographies this week. Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, by Peter Richmond, gets a largely favorable review from Times film and "cabaret" critic Stephen Holden.

Despite the hyperbole and the numerous writer's tics ... a real person still emerges in this book. That woman (the forerunner of contemporary singers as different as Diana Krall, KD Lang and Sade) is a wounded, maddening, magnetic artistic force who, four years after her death, still remains undervalued.

Greg Sandow is more ambivalent about Stephen Walsh's Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971. He calls it a "superb" account of the vital relationship between Stravinsky and Robert Craft that began in 1948 and infused Stravinsky's output ever thereafter, but he remarks that "Walsh could have done more with the music," and he proposes an "alternate biography" that would explain Mr Walsh's conclusion, unsupported in his view, that Stravinsky's music was "the most exact echo and the best response of those terrifying years that brought it into being" even while sounding "studiously, impenetrably deaf to the world around it."

Speaking of ambivalence, that would be the word to characterize John Wilson's review of Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Tradition. Ostensibly a work in comparative religion studies, The Great Transformation traces the development, during what Karl Jaspers called "The Axial Age" (900-200 BCE) of all the world's principal religions (save, of course, Islam).

What exactly Armstrong sees as unfolding is never stated very clearly, but The Great Transformation can be read as a story of collective human enlightenment much like the familiar idealized accounts of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment proper, though on a much grander scale.

Mr Wilson charges Ms Armstrong with oversimplification and with projecting "her own modern sensibility" onto ancient texts. One concludes that Ms Armstrong, though she deserves praise for starting a discussion, is in a little over her head here.

I've seen Stuart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read in a bookshop, and decided against it, largely because, as the title suggests, I don't need a list of nonexistent books that I'll never have to feel guilty about passing on. The lost books range from the incinerated (think Library of Alexandria) to the abandoned (Gibbon's history of the Swiss). Joe Queenan, however, is the right guy to give The Book of Lost Books a favorable review. He cherrypicks a few juicy tantalizing anecdotes (Jane Austen's projected Magnificent Adventures and Intriguing Romances of the House of Saxe Coburg), but he shares Mr Kelly's regrets about the ability of fantastics to blot our past by erasing some of the records.

The sometime biographer of Lord Curzon, David Gilmour, has moved on to examine the apparatus that Curzon and other viceroys oversaw in India, and A J Sherman gives his The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj a quite favorable review, noting that it is a useful corrective to the somewhat self-loathing views of EM Forster and other critics of the Raj. Of those who survived their terms in India, many Englishmen returned to find themselves at least as out of place at "home" when they retired.

I don't know what to make of George De Stefano's An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America, because I've only watched "The Sopranos" once or twice, and never felt the slightest tug of affection for the way of life portrayed therein. "The Sopranos" is well-executed entertainment, but its attempt to humanize organized crime is insidious pop culture. Crime reviewer Marilyn Stasio thinks that Mr De Stefano gets a bit carried away, confusing living mob figures with their fictional counterparts. If "The Sopranos" signifies anything, it's our wish to take one last look at expiring patriarchy before sealing the casket shut. We might shudder with a half-pleasant frisson, but we ought not to wish to join the doomed.

In case you haven't had enough of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sara Wheeler writes about the subject of Kelly Tyler-Lewis's The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party. Ms Wheeler says that Ms Tyler-Lewis tells the story "well," but the vast bulk of her "review" consists simply of her poaching it.

Reza Aslan's Essay, "The Epic of Iran," touches on something that I didn't know: the Iranian national epic, Shahnameh, is shot through with royalist resentment of the Arab imposition of Islam.

Today, as a new generation of Iranians struggles to define itself in opposition to a widely reviled religious regime, the Shahnameh is re-emerging as the supreme expression of a cultural identity transcending all notions of politics or piety.

Jolly good news. I presume that Mr Aslan does not want to help the "opposition" along with nuclear devices.


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