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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

It was unusually difficult, this week, to find sentences that conveyed the gist of the reviews in which they appeared while also casting come light on the books themselves. Emily Barton's review of Reading Like a Writer propelled me to the nearest bookstore for a copy of Francine Prose's new book, and, having finished it, I can only wish that fiction reviewers would look to it for guidance. Ms Prose can talk about writing in great detail without giving too much story away. Too many reviews regurgitate contents without providing much of a sense of what spending book-length time with them might be like.


The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud. "Among its many pleasures, this novel indisputably reminds us of one truth that cannot be declared fungible: the obdurate reality of the human imagination. The Emperor's Children is a penetrating testament to its power." - Meghan O'Rourke.

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany (translated by Humphrey Davies. "For the last quarter-century, Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a president who has won elections by imprisoning his opponents and has presided over a ramshackle economy riddled with corruption. From this depressing landscape, Alaa Al Aswany has conjured a bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an engagé novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart." - Lorraine Adams.

All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P Jones. "But there are no roughly sketched characters in Jones's stories. All are given the benefit of the doubt, and there is evidence that a better path is not out of reach for anyone. Even the most sympathetic characters, though, make decisions that are far too human to be doubted." - Dave Eggers.

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain. "Each of these eight stories is as rich as a novel - high praise when you consider how many of today's novels could be distilled into a short story." - Liesl Schillinger.

Voyage Along the Horizon and Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Two: Dance and Dream, by Javier Marías (translated by Kristina Cordero and Margaret Jull Costa, respectively). "If Voyage Along the Horizon could have been written by almost anyone (at times, it seems to have been written by everyone)..." "The slow, indefinite revelation of his universe is the most affecting narrative feat in Marías's work to date. It has a musical lightness that recalls Charles Ives's Unanswered Question, a composition that rises but does not resolve." - Wyatt Mason.

The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan. About a dish called "Dragon in the Flame of Desire": "This prurient item might easily have been featured in The Banquet Bug, Genling Yan's sly comic novel about the excesses - culinary and otherwise - of modern life in the Chinese capital. Although it may seem fantastical, her fiction is rooted in fact." - Ligaya Mishan. 

The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury. "This fine, ambling novel ends with a tug of war between the spiritual we don't altogether trust and the grind we're somehow unable to resist." - Robert Draper.


Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. "I became a writer because books gave me such joy. Her insistence on that pleasure informs her method: reading carefully to see what au author does on the page and between the lines. This casts learning in a positive light, unlike the typical workshops E R approach of trying to diagnose and cure the ailments of a story." - Emily Barton.

The Reluctant Mr Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, by David Quammen. "Darwin's creativity in explaining how species vary forms the crux of the story here. Quammen's book is almost as creative, giving a very free translation of his secondary sources. ... Invitations were answered with [Darwin's] courteous refusals, and no cultural refraction can render these, as Quammen does, as 'Leave me the hell alone!'" - Adrian Desmond.

When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex - and Sex Education - Since the Sixties, by Kristin Luker. "One way to get these conflicting world-views out into the open is to fight about marriage, which Luker thinks is the true subject of the sex-ed wars." - Judith Shulevitz.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorhead. "Beyond the illustriousness of her correspondents ... what makes this book a literary landmark is that Gellhorn's prose, splendid enough in her 13 published books of fiction, travel writing and reportage, is at its finest in the letter form." - Francine du Plessix Gray.

The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales, by Bill Minutaglio. ""Minutaglio's fascinating book will surely not be the last word on this sorry tale, but it goes a long way toward removing the veil Gonalez has tried to drape over his career." - Jacob Heilbrun.

Natural Selection: Gary Giddens on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books, by Gary Giddens. "He makes the case that popular culture, in all its minutiae, ultimately engages us with the world; immersing oneself in a book, song or film is the very opposite of escapist." - Ada Calhoun.

¶ Nonfiction Chronicle. - Tara McKelvey

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S Collins. "In a country where a large percentage of the population believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that humans once frolicked with dinosaurs, his argument that science and faith are compatible deserves a wide hearing."

In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchinson. "IN Hutchinson's telling, Larsen doesn't seem at home in any society, black or white, even as a adult. That subtitle makes it sound as if this were a dry analysis of race and society. In fact, the book is about Larsen. The brings the issues to life." 

Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein. "Somehow, the books lacks drama and texture. Although Schleifstein was on the scene, you'd never know it from the detached prose."

A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "Despite a Dickensian childhood, institutional sadism and bad luck, [George Appo] remains honest, in his own way, and is rightly transformed into an American hero."

Grayson, by Lynne Cox. "But given the platitudes ('Sometimes you just have to believe') and bland observations, this hardly seems worth a 5 AM swim in 55-degree water."

Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc D Hause. "The vast bulk of Moral Minds consists of reports of experimental results,, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a 'moral voice of our species'." - Richard Rorty.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "The Mystery of the Missing Novel," is a disturbing look into WW Norton's refusal to publish John Robert Lennon's Happyland, presumably for fear of offending American Girl creator Pleasant Rowland.

This review was written on 3 September 2006 and backdated; see below for scanty details about the refrigerator crisis that distracted me.


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