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In the Book Review

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

Regular reviewing of the Book Review resumes this week. It's a laborious business, but it makes me much more knowledgeable about what's going on in books than simply reading reviews of books that look interesting. It also sharpens some very basic ideas about literary criticism. The lesson that I've taken most to heart is that I dislike hostile reviews. Unless they're extremely clever (which they rarely are), they're just unnecessary. Rotten reviews are a kind of gossip, really, and have nothing to do with literature. I hesitate to point to an example, but as it happens someone sent me the link to this trashing of Jonathan Franzen's new collection of essays, The Discomfort Zone. If you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to one sentence.

Fiction & Poetry

Brad Leithauser's sympathetic review of Not For Specialists: New and Selected Poems, by W D Snodgrass, does a good job of outlining the poet's career while featuring his strengths.

Only a few [poems] are deeply affecting. And yet the ones that are are real glories.

It is a pity that the Times cannot more systematically cover the work of living poets, and I, for one, would like to more about the topography of the field. Where are the centers, and what are the important events. I've got a few inklings, but not an organized idea.

The cover, this week, goes to Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon: Stories. Stephen Metcalf's favorable review goes beyond the book at hand to attempt to place McGuane, and to some degree to polish his reputation a bit.

And yet he's failed, for better and for worse, to become an Event Fiction brand name. His perceived regionalism and his attraction to masculine themes have certainly contributed to this, but Gallatin Canyon does everything in its power to break down a silly American dichotomy, between a supposedly feminine preoccupation with manners and a supposedly masculine preoccupation with, well, everything else: sex, nature, aboriginal selfhood, you get the drill. McGuane has driven so hard into the heart of received wisdom concerning American manhood, otherwise known as American loneliness, that he has broken through to the other side.

That sounds very good, but I'm not sure what it means to break through received wisdom. Jim Holt's review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, by Janna Levin, left me completely in the dark about whether this novel about Gödel, Turing, and Wittgenstein, which Mr Holt says "fits squarely in the genre of the subgenre of the novel of ideas," is actually readable; a great deal of his commentary suggests that it isn't.

Jennifer Egan is as definite as can be, however, when she says this of Janel Davey's First Aid:

The result is a sharp, unsettling book that invokes a number of rich tales without exploring them directly. It has a curious power, like watching a play from a very hard chair, and finding yourself in a heightened state of observation and attention. Still, you may wish that the chair were more forgiving.

Indeed. I find discomfort of any kind maddeningly distracting, but I see what Ms Egan means.

The Last Town on Earth, by Thomas Mullen, gets a sympathetic review that just the same throws out cautions about cardboard villains and an unnecessary village chorus in Mr Mullen's book about a Western town's self-quarantine during the 1918 flu. Sharing the page is Tom Barbash's review of Robert Olen Butler's new collection of stories - or story-like pieces - Severance: Stories. Mr Barbash makes it very clear that Severance is a stunt: each story is limited to 240 words, or the estimated number that could be spoken in the time that it takes human consciousness to expire after decapitation. (So they say.) Facts and fictions mingle freely. The review ends with a jolly understood pun.

The final story is told by the decapitated cranium of the author himself - proof that, for all his literary hubris, Robert Olen Butler knows to quit while he's, well - you know.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist whose first books are only now appearing in the United States, and according to Gregory Cowles, Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding "display the generous wit and effervescence that make her so companionable a storyteller."

Alison McCulloch's Fiction Chronicle rounds up five books.

Playing in the Light, by Zoe Wicomb. "A mixed-race South African who moved to Britain in her early 20's, Wicomb deftly explores the ghastly soup of racism in all its unglory - denial, tradition, habit, stupidity, fear - and manages to do so without moralizing or becoming formulaic."

How To Cope With Suburban Stress, by David Galet. "All of this makes for a quirky kind of morality tale as the repulsive clashes with the satirical, but in a way that ultimately underlines both."

Last Notes: And Other Stories, by Tamas Dobozy. "The unexpected can quickly become the expected in these strange and intense stories packed with fast-paced weirdness - characters and events that tumble over one another on their way to closure, which comes most often in the form of a character's 'realizing' something about life, loss, sentimentality of why his mother was so religiously devout."

In the Name of Friendship, by Marilyn French. "Meanwhile, the educational component of the novel covers basic feminist principles as well as issues like the Vietnam War, the Holocaust and the 2000 election campaign, and is capped with a bibliography and afterward by Stephanie Genty, who teaches at a French university."

Elegy for Sam Emerson, by Hilary Masters. "This is a tender story, easy on the sensibilities if occasionally maudlin, that moves efficiently between past and present. And it is not without its own quiet power."


Perhaps recognizing that it is far too soon to attempt substantive assessment of 9/11, the Review marks the catastrophe's fifth anniversary with reviews of books that would be very digestible were it not for their subject matter. matter. Garrison Keillor writes about Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11, by David Friend. True to form, Mr Garrison shows himself ill-suited to the job of reviewing books: he cannot resist the temptation to tell good stories, without making it clear that they come from the book under discussion. He does make at least one astute observation, however (also true to form):

Photography couldn't convey the failure of national defense and intelligence, or the failure of the city of New York, even after the 1993 bombing of the trade center, to coordinate police and fire communications, a failure that cost many lives that morning, or certain tragic choices in the design of the towers. You need prose reporting for that.

Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive, by Joel Meyerowitz, is, according to Jonathan Mahler's revew, "uplifting." Mr Meyerowitz, not the photograph one would have expected to take these pictures but a man with important connections, was allowed unfettered access to Ground Zero for the extent of the cleanup process.

Gary Giddins gives the second volume of Simon Callow's Orson Welles: Hello Americans a frosty review.

Callow claims he will finish his biography in one more volume. That hardly seems possible or desirable. ... A glance at the contents page of Hello Americans suggests that Callow has already been too long at the well.

But Mr Giddins does note that the new volume reflects a change of view on the author's part, no longer regarding "the arc of Welles's career as a downfall..." Alexandra Jacobs is similarly unsympathetic about Amy Wilentz's I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger.

Like most devoted New Yorkers who find themselves in La La Land, the author goes through at least half of the five stages of grief. After the initial shock - Palm trees! Hummingbirds! Valet parking! - comes denial, when one tries to pretend that this decidedly un-metropolitan city, teeming as it is with fellow expatriates, is really just a sixth borough.

In other words, the territory has been worked too often for Ms Jacobs's taste. That hardly seems a problem that Ms Wilentz ought to address.

William Christenberry: Essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N Fox; (Foreword by Elizabeth Brown) is an exhibition catalogue that accompanies a comprehensive show of Mr Christenberry's work in various media at the Smithsonian. Richard Woodward captures the spectral physicality of the photographs of neglected Hale County, Alabama, buildings over the years.

These places weren't constructed to last for the ages and aren't likely to be missed, except by those who filled them for a few years or decades. Still, he treats them with respect, charting their alterations and passings. Paying careful attention to surroundings that would otherwise be forgotten or unremarked upon can be its own political statement.

The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Deisregard for Human Life is a "bracing polemic, according to Jonathan Rauch. "Hard-line abortion-rights advocates will find in it an unsettling challenge, or should," Mr Rauch observes.

But to Jenny and Greg and millions of others (including me) who believe that a fetus, especially in early pregnancy, occupies a unique moral place of its own - a position somewhere between that of a 10-day-old and an appendix, but not analogous to their of those or to anything else - The Party of Death has little to say.

Finally, Hanna Rubin is less than impressed by Time Steps: My Musical Comedy Life, by Donna McKechnie with Greg Lawrence.

... much of it sounds like material that the collaborators who create her cabaret show persuaded her to discard. The prose is workmanlike at best.

Richard Brookhiser's Essay, "John Adams Talks to His Books," is about a show at the Boston Public Library exhibiting many of the second president's profuse marginalia.


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