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In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The Library of America has launched an offshoot line of poetry books, and Cole Porter is "the first lyricist of any stripe," writes David Barber, "to make the roster." Mr Barber, poetry editor at Atlantic, waxes very enthusiastic about Robert Kimball's collection, Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. He reminds us, however, that words are only half of the Cole Porter story.

Truth be told, there's something about his words all by their lonesome that smacks of taxidermy: their pulse depends not only on the visceral artistry of vocal delivery but on the stage personas and narrative trappings so vital to Porter's collaborative medium.

It might have been better to assign this book to someone unfamiliar with the Porter oeuvre. Dan Chiasson gives the very different White Apples and the Taste of the Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006, the latest collection of Donald Hall's poetry, that rarest of pieces, the sympathetic but unfavorable review. The thrust of Mr Chiasson's complaint is that Mr Hall has not been nearly selective enough. 

But a short book of very fine poems is what Hall, over the course of his career, has made. A selected poems reflecting that proud fact would make his best work seem the result of terms carefully developed, pains taken. This book tells another story.

Three novels are reviewed this week. Getting full treatment is the late Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth (translated by Chris Andrews), a collection of stories that Francine Prose fervently wishes us all to read. I must say that my own recollection of the powerful title story, which appeared in The New Yorker not long ago, distracted me from Ms Prose's praise - very unprofessional of me. The review makes its case indirectly, recounting the reviewer's fevered discovery of the author's work and the eagerness with which she talked him up to her friends. One feels that her piece ought to be twice as long: so much is crammed into the space allotted that the review approaches unintelligibility. The prime facts about Bolaño - the intensity of his writing and the fact that one is discovering him posthumously - shrouds his work with a regret that suits it all too well.

Sharing a page are Ada Calhoun's review of The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard, and Tom Barbash's review of Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare. The latter book appears to be something of a satire about neglectful mental-health services in Britain, but Mr Barbash does not indicate the kind of fun that's on offer, if any. Nor does he provide an extensive quote indicative of the satire's flavor. Although the review is favorable, I don't see readers rushing to acquire the book on the strength of it. According to Ms Calhoun, Mr Bayard "reinvigorates historical fiction," and she deems this mystery, set at West Point and solved (or not) by a fictional constable and his real-life sidekick, a sleuth by the name of Poe, a success.

Messengers drive phaetons. There's black magic, phrenology, a profusion of ghosts, even a boat trip through torch-lit mist. But none of it seems musty. Bayard does what all those ads for historical tourist destinations promise: as Landor says at death's door, "the past comes on with all the force of the present."


On the cover this week is a hurricane, as seen from space. In "Hell and High Water," David Oshinsky uses two new books about the devastation of New Orleans, wrought indirectly by Katrina, to rehash the disaster. The scale of the catastrophe swamps the review. One learns that both The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by David Brinkley, and Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the New Death of a Great American City, by Jed Horne, regard re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin with a disapproving eye. And Mr Oshinsky writes that "those seeking a more condensed take" ought to choose Breach of Faith. He likes both books, but is so horrified by the story that they tell that, writing in parallel, he fails to let us know how well they tell it.

At the other end of the urgency scale, Dana Goodyear shrugs out a review of Tales of the Rose Tree: Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World, by Jane Brown. Ms Goodyear does not think much of Ms Brown's mentality, finding it "an oddly 19th-century cast of mind" given to flights of fancy that are not "helpful." But, hey, she had to read the book, and here are some interesting points. Why this book wasn't covered in the Nonfiction Chronicle, I have no idea. A full page (with pictures) devoted to an iffy gardening book?

Equally odd, if not quite so lengthy, is Thomas Mallon's review of Reggie Nadelson's Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union.

In the wildly meandering Comrade Rockstar, first published in England 15 years ago, she sometimes has trouble remembering what she's written a page or even a paragraph ago, and the book is full of breathtaking errors...

So much for the book. For most of the review, Mr Mallon writes in parallel about the bizarre career of a second-rate singer-actor from Colorado. (Here's what I mean by writing "in parallel": Sketching a thumbnail of the book's story in such a way that the reader can't distinguish with any certainty what the reviewer is regurgitating from the book from what the reviewer already knew. Parallels review almost never engage directly with the books themselves.)

Katherine Lanpher gives Catherine Friend's Hit By A Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn a quizzically favorable review, but one without a word about Ms Friend's writing. The author writes of surrendering to her partner's obsession with returning to the land, subsequently rebelling but eventually acquiescing. "There might even be material for a sequel," Ms Lanpher somewhat fatuously ventures.

I often preach that a good review does not fault a book for being something that it never set out to be, but there are other things to bear in mind, such as the need to expose hypocrisy and evasion. Mary Cheney's Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life may not be terribly hypocritical, but it is most certainly evasive. Alexandra Jacobs points out that Ms Cheney is not obliged, either by her orientation or her public figure, to be a gay-rights advocate, but surely we have the right to expect her to discuss the contradictions inherent in a parental relationship that's supposed to be both loving and hostile to gay rights.

Cheney acknowledges that the president's position on gay marriage gives her "a knot in the pit of my stomach," so what in the name of Rita Mae Brown stopped her from confronting him? Timidity? Deference? Or her avowed desire to "maintain a low profile" (which raises the question: why write this book at all)?

Why, indeed.

The rhododendron book would have fit right in with the other selections in Florence Williams's Nonfiction Chronicle, all of which are nature books in one way or another.

Seaworthy: Adrift With William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting, by T R Pearson. "The first nonfiction book by Pearson, a novelist, Seaworthy occasionally suffers from a lack of sourcing, and it could have benefited from a more thorough discussion of relevant topics like the physiology of hydration."

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts. "'A medical mystery, a modest hero, a series of cloaked affections. How could my fascination not become an obsession?' he writes. Roberts is only partly successful in conveying his passion."

Secrets of the Savanna: Twenty-Three Years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People, by Mark and Della Owens. "Writing about your achievements can be tricky, though, and parts of the narrative read like grant proposals..."

Murmurs from the Deep: Scientific Adventure in the Caribbean, by Gilles Fonteneau (translated by George Holoch). "Billed as 'scientific adventure,' Murmurs From the Deep fails short on both counts."

The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales, by Douglas H Chadwick. "Observing five species across the world - even swimming among them - Chadwick tallies up fact after fact in a breezy and straightforward style."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Saving the Planet, One Book at a Time," reports on the publishing industry's use of recycled paper.

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