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In the Book Review

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

Of the full-dress reviews, only those by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Gorra are good ones; perhaps not incidentally, they're also favorable.

Nonfiction fares much better, with good reviews by Ron Rosenbaum, Christopher Buckley, Geoff Dyer, and Jennifer Senior. Actually, they're all good - although I didn't quite understand Ron Powers or his subject, E L Doctorow.

Fiction & Poetry

Martha Collins's Blue Front is a collection of poems written around a central theme. Dana Goodyear is too busy explaining why the lynching and dismemberment of a black man in 1909 is of such interest to Ms Collins to convey much of a sense of the verse. The review is tantalizing but irritating.

Terrence Rafferty might have improved his very enthusiastic review of David Long's The Inhabited World by quoting an entire paragraph. That's always a good idea in any review, but here, where Mr Rafferty claims that it's the quality of the writing that buoys up the narrative of suicide ghost, it's essential.

The novel wouldn't work if Long weren't able to convey the keenness of the joys his hero has left behind, and he is able, emphatically. It's the restrained sensuality of the writing itself that quickens this sad story for him, the tingle of the sentences as they flow.

Don't ask me to take your word for it! Michael Gorra's somewhat longer review of Forgetfulness, the new novel by Ward Just, is similarly favorable, but more illuminating.

In formal terms, Just stays firmly within the canons of contemporary American realism, but he differs from his peers in the ease with which he glides between affairs of state and close-grained portraits of domestic life. In this, he resembles the James Gould Cozzens of Guard of Honor, that matchless account of America at the work of war, and Just's fiction offers some of the same shrewd worldliness.

That might not be helpful to someone who has not read Cozzens - and who has these days, below the age of fifty? - but the comparison at least raises a shout for the older writer. If there's one novel in this week's Review that I might read, it's this one.

Mark Kamine gives Will Beall's L A Rex an indifferent review. "His novel is a kind of crime fighter's bildungsroman," Mr Kamine writes, later faulting the slapdash finale thus: "It's as if Beall has convinced himself we'll go along with anything just to get to the novel's apocalyptic ending." But spends most of his time storytelling. To be genuinely instructive about L A Rex, the review would probably have to be reconceived. I found Uzodinma Iweala's review of Ancestor Stones, by Aminatta Forna, just as unhelpful. It is torn between supporting a novel with an African setting (Sierra Leone) and questioning the skill with which it is handled. The result is a muddle.

Andrew Ervin's Fiction Chronicle is unusual in covering three works that have been translated into English.

It's Getting Later All the Time: A Novel in the Form of Letters, by Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Alistair McEwan). "Flouting the conventions of the traditional epistolary novel even as it pays tribute to the vanished art of letter-writing, this new book from one of Italy's best writers ... seems meant to be read aloud."

The Prisoner of Guantánamno, by Dan Fesperman. "... the novel gets blown off course near the end when Fesperman bails out on most of the characters and goes looking for drama in all the wrong places..."

The Woman in the Row Behind, by Françoise Dorner (translated by Adriana Hunger). "... a precise and thought-provoking novel of ideas wrapped in the garish trappings of chick lit."

The City is a Rising Tide, by Rebecca Lee. The novel's heroine's "terrible, cringe-inducing judgment astounds at every turn, as does Lee's ability to amp up the tension, comic and otherwise, until the book begins to seem like it could spontaneously combust."

Blue Light in the Sky: And Other Stories, by Can Xue (translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping). "Not all of [these stories] are pleasant, but they're clearly the products of a wholly original mind."


This week's cover book is The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelssohn, and Ron Rosenbaum gives it a strong, favorable review. It's a big book with a wealth of detail, following the author's attempt to resurrect as much information as he can about the family of his great-uncle Shmiel, who perished either in the camps or in Bolechow, now in Ukraine.

But in the end, his investigation narrows dramatically to seek the truth of a single act, a single decision involving hiding and betrayal. "The saviors," Mendelssohn says, "were, in their way, as inexplicable and mysterious to me as the betrayers." Why did some help and some betray? The disclosure of the solution to this mystery takes on a powerfully suspenseful momentum as all of the evidence and eyewitnesses of the virtual and real Bolechow are focused upon bringing the truth to the surface.

Gus Russo has just published Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers. I first encountered Korshak in Connie Bruck's book about Lew Wasserman. Once was enough. According to Rich Cohen, Mr Russo may be in for a call from the Anti-Defamation League, because he "retells the story of our time as a conspiracy of Jews."

The fact is, every immigrant community in this country has spawned an underworld and every underworld has needed guys like Korshak. This does not make him a typically Jewish figure. I makes him a typically American figure. Or as Bellow's Augie March proclaims, "I am an American, Chicago born."

This appears to be a justifiably negative review.

I'm not entirely sure that I understand Ron Powers's praise for E L Doctorow's collection, Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006. There's a lot of talk about Mr Doctorow's concern for "the voice of the book," and much of it waxed too poetic for me. "Creationists," Mr Powers writes, "sustains a pitch of fascination, borne on a cascade of glittering aphorism, rarely encountered in the unforgiving genre of literary criticism." The passages that Mr Powers quotes, while fascinated, lack the glittering aphorism but have a quasi-visionary abstractness that I can live without.

This week's funny review is by - no surprise - Christopher Buckley, who takes aim at The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Allan and Barbara Pease.

If the approximately one zillion studies adduced here by the authors are any indication, it seems that 90 percent of the population has been gainfully employed studying the body language patterns of the other 10 percent. While you and I have been hunter-gathering at the office, protecting our necks and other vulnerable areas, the Peases, along with legions of academics and students of evolutionary behavior, have been monitoring how often French people touch each other in outdoor cafes (142 touches per hour versus zero touches for Londoners); or who opts for the end toilet stall (that must have been a fun project); the smiling patterns among middle-class residents of Atlanta and Memphis (more fun than watching public toilets, anyway); the hip-to-waist ratio in 50 years of Playboy centerfolds (significantly more fun than the toilet survey); how many among 400 cigar exhalations at a festive event were directed upward, as opposed to downward (a toss-up between that and observing toilets); and whether larger-breasted women hitchhikers get more rides than smaller-breasted ones. This last was undertaken by "researchers at Purdue University." Care to hazard a guess as to the finding? I smell an earmark in some omnibus transporation bill.

Geoff Dyer's review of Robert Hughes's Things I Didn't Know: A Memoir takes second place in the funny department.

Here's the rub. It's fine being an elitist, but the credentials for occupying such a privileged seat have constantly to be justified and renewed. And this can't be done if you write flabby prose. Back in the early 1960's, Hughes concedes, he was "not a fully functioning writer." And now that he's in his late 60's? The answer, I fear, is found in the same paragraph. "Living for beauty was all very well, but it wasn't going to put and spinach on the plate, let alone butter on the spinach. In two years I had laid up a lot of honey in my comb.

For those of you how have plowed through the books about how we die and what happens to our corpses, &c, there is now Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, by Tina Cassidy. Alexandra Jacobs writes,

Cassidy's natal narrative hews closely to real-life events... Still, there's a collective, willful amnesia about birth - as if it's an alien visitation, rather than the normal order of things - that has been begging for her clear-headed dissipation. We want it to be meaningful and we want it to be mercifully brief. This book is both.

At the center of this week's Review, there are facing critiques of conservative phenomena. Jennifer Senior reviews two books aimed at the Bush Administration and finds them shrill and humorless. Of Pretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administration, by Lewis H Lapham, Ms Lapham writes - having recited a number of the book's starker charges:

Well, at least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent - and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis to support any of these claims - you may feel less inclined to throttle Lapham's targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham....

And of How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime, by Sidney Blumenthal, she sighs,

After a while, it's hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power. But their content has also been curated with one aim in mind, and that's to cast the Bush administration in the grimmest possible light, rather like Philip Roth telling the story of his protagonist in Everyman from the point of view of his illnesses. ...

It's hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst.

Ms Senior makes it clear that she is no Bushie; she's impatient with these writers' overstated rantings. To be sure, we used to laugh at the indignation of books such as these - when they were written from the right. And on the facing page, Adrian Wooldridge throws cold water on The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, by Damon Linker, arguing that Mr Linker's small band of conservative Roman Catholics constitute a "rather eccentric intellectual clique," not a revolutionary threat. Nevertheless, this is only cold water, not dismissal.

Linker is a disillusioned theocon who cut his journalistic teeth working for Neuhaus's magazine, First Things. But his tone is admirably restrained, dispassionate and scholarly when it could so easily have been rank and recriminatory, and he uses his insider's knowledge to build up a detailed account of the movement. The result, for anybody who wants to understand the growing public role of American religion, is a book to reckon with.

Finally, there is the rather sad review of What It Used To Be Like: A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver, by Maryann Burk Carter. According to Joyce Johnson, Ms Carter's book "reads like yet another document of dysfunctionality that sheds little light on the experience it portrays." It would seem that the celebrated short-story writer's first wife cannot shake off the pride of having been an enabling doormat: the famous man chose her. (And then asked her to leave.)

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Dumbing Up," is all about the X for Dummies series. "Dummy" is such a dumb word, don't you think? One that only a dummy would use. Whereas in France, the series' correlative title of one volume is L'Histoire de France Pour Les Nuls. Quite a different cup of tea.

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