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Book Review

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

Summer Reading

Or so they say. There's nothing particularly summery about this week's books. True, there's a lot of baseball. When is the Times going to move this stuff to the Sports Section? Never, because of the American religious belief that "great baseball writing" validates normal, indoor-oriented literature by providing it with a much-needed masculine toughness. Because I'm such a spoilsport, I can't speak from experience, but I suspect that literary baseball is a transcendent sport now being played on computer keyboards everywhere - and on all of the few surviving typewriters. There is no sign of this infatuation's ever passing to football or tennis. The utter domesticity of baseball really hit me for the first time in, of all places, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Did you notice, too? In any case, while I am going to ignore the Baseball Chronicle (!), I will struggle with the Babe Ruth biography.

What makes me laugh, though, is that baseball is not on the cover. Superman is. Summer Reading = Superman. Who are the editors aiming for?

Fiction

Eight novels receive full reviews this week, and with one exception they all involve exotic or historical settings. Well, perhaps there is nothing exotic about Italy, where the heroine of Martha McPhee's new novel, L'America, falls in love with a boy from the Italian haute bourgeoisie. Jeff Turrentine gives the book a favorable review, but he spends more time summarizing the decades-long story and doesn't offer many illuminating quotations. He also rather extracurricularly notes that the author is the daughter of "John McPhee, who is arguably American's most famous literary obsessive," by way of suggesting that Ms McPhee may be packing too much detail. I can't call this a bad review, exactly, because it sold the book to me. But it did so pretty cheesily.

Alan Riding is fairly unenthusiastic about Henry Shukman's collection, Mortimer of the Maghreb: Stories.

Now, with a collection of stories..., Henry Shukman, a British poet and travel writer, has dispatched a new cast of characters along what at times seem like well-trodden paths.

Mr Riding proceeds to make his case ably. I felt quite sorry for Mr Shukman, and wondered if the old adage that the only thing worse than a bad review is no review is always true. Henry Alford, whom I would have thought to be too much of a cutup to be allowed to write about historical novels set in Victorian Britain, thinks better of Intoxicated: A Novel of Money, Madness and the Invention of the World's Favorite Soft Drink, by John Barlow, but his praise is decidedly back-handed. He writes that Mr Barlow is "getting better" because he's less revolting than he was in his first book, and then, in a three-word (or so) coup de grâce, he identifies the book as a "T C Boyle-like novel." That's all I needed to know. (No, thank you!) Daniel Swift is pretty hard on Red Weather, by Pauls Toutonghi, a new Latvian-American writer who writes about Latvian-Americans and the end of the USSR, noting that "As a narrator, Yuri is a lead weight." But Mr Swift seems to like the book overall, and he claims that "the amazingly quiet ending reverberates back through the whole book." ("...back through one's reading" would have been more articulate.) Elizabeth Judd is similarly ambivalent on the facing page, reviewing Sara Gruen's circus novel, Water for Elephants.

At its finest, Water for Elephants resembles stealth hits like The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, or The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, books that combine outrageously whimsical premises with crowd-pleasing romanticism. But Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama...

But Ms Judd also finds salvation (for the book, not herself) in a well brought-off finale.

For our next mixed review, we go to South America, and a novel about Bolivar's real-life mistress, Manuela Sáenz: Our Lives Are The Rivers, by Jaime Manrique. Reviewer Cathleen Medwick tells us that Mr Manrique is a gay New Yorker. After faulting his "syrupy" description of Manuela's erotic thrill at feeling the Libertador's strength through his uniform, she launches a complaint from the opposite angle.

Yet Manrique doesn't always make these tales as vivid and convincing as they should be; it's as if he's holding his imagination in check. We hear about Bolivar's "perturbing maleness," but can't quite visualize the tiny, brooding conqueror in the flesh.

Mixed message, that. It was with no small relief that I reached Alan Furst's solidly enthusiastic review of Moonlight Hotel, by Scott Anderson. I will quote the final paragraph in full; you may need to read no more before ordering a copy of the novel.

What follows is an extremely sophisticated and passionate description of the political nightmare visited on small countries by great and powerful nations, detail by detail, the shadowy moves at the margins of the nightly news since the days of Vietnam. A sad business, and sadder still because there is dire authenticity in ever tactical move in this novel - Anderson knows exactly what he's talking about. Like the soldiers, like the diplomats, he's been there and seen it, and had to write the dispatches - and, one suspects on finishing Moonlight Hotel, had to write the novel. To say what can't be said on the front page. Not that it happened, but why, and who's to blame.

Wow! Now that's a review! (I should add that Mr Furst's quotations of the novel do not fail to support his case.)

Alison McCulloch reviews five books in a Fiction Chronicle.

The Heretic, by Miguel Delibes. "The delight here is the in the detail of Spanish life, particularly of Valladolid, the novel's setting and Delibes's hometown... [the novel is set in the early sixteenth century].

Departure Lounge, by Chad Taylor. "Taylor, a New Zealand writer with four previous novels under his belt, is a master of darkness and detail, but his troubled burglar is always a little too remote..."

The Librarians of Alexandria: A Tale of Two Sisters, by Alessandra Lavagnino (translated by Teresa Lust). "... but in the end, The Librarians of Alexandria is more a lesson in art history than a story of people you might come to feel sympathy for.

Mercedes Benz: From Letters to Hrabal, by Pawel Huelle (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones). "... the stories themselves are charming - funny and sad, yet without the bitterness one might expect from survivors of such capricious times."

The Last Friend, by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated by Kevin Michael Capé and Hazel Rowley). "Decades of what seem to have been rich lives are covered at such a pace that we never fully understand these men or what comes between them."

Does a novel by Plum Sykes "count"? Here is the last sentence of Christine Muhlke's review:

The Debutante Divorcée is what you read on the [Hampton] jitney after Vogue and before Us Weekly. It would be a seamless transition.

Oh, I get it! That was the "summer reading"!

Nonfiction

In "How to Write About Film," Clive James turns a review of the new Library of America offering, American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, edited by Philip Lopate, into the sort of grandly funny but utterly sensible essay that the Book Review ought to publish a lot more often. While taking giddying pot shots at pretension and formula (Pauline Kael, Robert Warshow, Parker Tyler!), Mr James answers the question that he poses, rhetorically enough to be sure, at the start.

... one of the subsidiary functions that this hefty compilation might perform - subsidiary, that is, to its being sheerly entertaining on a high level - is to help settle a nagging question. In our appreciation of the arts, does a theory give us more to think about, or less?

It was as if the world had cracked open, revealing all of its secrets and mysteries: theory is for dummies! Truly, Clive James is right up there with Moses when it comes to  cutting through impenetralia. I laughed frequently and never lost a smile. Mr James is decent enough to include a parenthetical complaint about Anthony Lane, of The New Yorker - surely one of the funniest incisive writers going:

(Lane, being British, isn't in the book, which is a bit like not letting Tiger Woods play at St Andrews.)

But then the Lopate brothers have their own very different sense of humor. I shall tuck this review into my copy of American Move Critics.

In another funny review, this one by Dave Barry, perhaps the most popular writer of American humour at the moment, fails to show how author Tom Lutz sustains the 363-page length of Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America. It sounds like an amusing essay, not a book, and the one actual comment that Mr Barry does make about the text suggests padding on a colossal scale. I don't find the promise that there is "plenty of interesting reading" particularly reassuring.

In contrast, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's review of Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the World's Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers, by Amy Sutherland, is the most thoughtful piece in this week's review. Ms Thomas sorts through the various and contradictory contentions that human beings tie in knots by trying to fill the vacuum created by the muteness of animals in captivity: what's good for them? It appears that interaction with engaged people really improves the quality of some animals' lives, and it's very interesting to read that circuses have taught zookeepers how to do rethink their jobs. At the same time, Ms Thomas shows that there is much to be learned; that students in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College in California - Ms Sutherland's subject - are somewhat blinded by "glib, often inaccurate interpretations of animal behavior." As you know, I think we've got plenty on our plate managing the human animal, but this review made me suppose, for the first time, that zoos might be healthy places.

There are two works of American history this week, and both concern the awful way in which European settlers treated people who weren't European settlers. The books sound quite different, but perhaps I'm reading in things that I already know. According to Russell Shorto, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is a magisterial account of the Pilgrim experiment at Plymouth Massachusetts. Mr Shorto gets a prize for finally - finally! - driving into my thick skull the distinction between the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Boston. Frankly, I wish they'd stayed in Europe. Or that I could settle in Europe! If I could stand reading about these people at all, which I can't and couldn't, I would have the pleasure of getting to know the Wampanoag leader who went by the interesting names of Metacomet and King Philip.

As for Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, even Brent Staples couldn't get me to read it. I have waded through enough of Mr Schama's history already, and I will have nothing further to do with a man who likes to take a footnote to see how far he can run with it. His virtuosity is not, in the end, informative, and every review that I have read of this book suggests that Mr Schama has not got anything interesting to say about the sorry hash that the British made of protecting, liberating, and of course exploiting slaves during the Revolution. Initially a story of hope, and also a strong critical corrective of our myth of liberty (what a crock), Rough Crossings, insofar as it sticks to the facts, is necessarily the tale of fiascos à la carte: the former slaves could choose between ruination in Newfoundland, London, or Sierra Leone. Mr Staples's review recounts the awful truth, and tries to find merit in the fact that, screwed as they might have been, these people were at last free, but he has nothing to say about Mr Schama's brand of history. Good writer that Mr Staples is himself, he keeps the hand-wringing to a minimum.

And now for sports. There are two biographies, one of Babe Ruth and the other of Jimmy Winkfield, a notable jockey at the turn of the last century who, facing increasing discrimination at home, went off to Europe to have some excellent adventures in the Russian Revolution. Did I say that the man was five feet tall and black? Aside from a spell in the US during World War II, Winkfield stayed in Europe until his death in 1974. Both subjects, in short, lived interesting lives, but they were not note-keeping introspectives, and both Bob Spitz, reviewing The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, by Leigh Montville, and Bill Barich, reviewing Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend, by Joe Drape, complain about not getting to know the inner man. Otherwise, both books are found to be praiseworthy, and guys who aren't particularly introspective will doubtless find them great reads. Inner life is not even an issue in Man O' War: A Legend Like Lightning, by Dorothy Ours - also favorably reviewed by Mr Barich. I personally am holding out for a biography of the Rock of Gibraltar - what a timeless story that will be! Rotisserie League baseball is the subject of two books reviewd by Hugo Lindgren, The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball [for once, it seems, an accurate subtitle], by Scott Gray, and Fantasyland: A Seaon on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, by Sam Walker. These are very depressing books, if you ask me, because they illustrate the male mind's propensity to manufacture difficulties in order to solve them. Bill James, whom I've heard about before, "changed baseball" by drilling down into the sport's copious statistics, thus creating many more things to worry about. As for Fantasy baseball, I'm not going to say anything about it until I'm sure that it's an American nonpareil. Not one of the three three reviews mentioned in this paragraph suggests the slightest doubt that it belongs in the pages of The New York Times Book Review.

David Orr's Essay, "A Toast to the Happy Couplet," is all about the dearth of new wedding poems. In other words, it's a fine occasion for feeling self-congratulatory for knowing the word "epithalamion" (or "-ium") and how to spell it. "Is the problem simply that weddings are joyous, and modern poetry, well, isn't?" Mr Orr concludes that modern verse is too personal for public celebrations, and he notes that this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to a book about divorce.

Batteries Not Included: I declined to read, much less write about, a Comics Chronicle by John Hodgman, crime and horror roundups by Marilyn Stasio and Terrence Raffertey, a Baseball Chronicle by Ihsan Taylor, a Music Chronicle by Dave Itzkoff and Laura Sinagra, and a travel roundup by Max Watman. All, right, I read Mr Hodgman's piece, and then decided that I had nothing to say about the still perplexing genre of serious but fictional bandes dessinées.

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I dare you to read my book and find it "padded." As a person lazy enough to review books by reading reviews of them, you will have much to learn from my book, and you will find many kindred spirits discussed. Cheers!

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