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In the Book Review

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

The stand-alone novel reviews this week are barely mediocre at best. If I needed a silver lining, I could find relief in this week's edition's failure to add any titles to my tottering wish list - but then, this isn't about me. The nonfiction reviews are far better. Max Frankel's review of Michael Lind's American Way of Strategy, however, suggested a coinage: the "cuckoo essay." There's nothing crazy about such a piece; it's merely an underdeveloped essay posing as a book review. The underlying motif of every cuckoo essay is this: "Now, if I were writing this book..."

Fiction & Poetry

David Orr devotes the entirety of his "On Poetry" piece to the difficulties of teaching poetry - and to Stephen Fry's valiant determination to overcome them with an amusing handbook, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Mr Orr thinks that the comedian has got it right.

In the end, what comes through most vividly in The Ode Less Travelled, and what makes it work so well for the amateur, is Fry's belief that poetry, like cooking, "begins with love, an absolute love of eating and of the grain and particularity of food." ... Poetry, then, isn't a symbol for a type of behavior, it's an experience on its own..."

We have four novels this week, and, in addition, a roundup up five more. Rob Nixon's review of Half of a Yellow Sun, by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Nghozi Adichie, might have been improved by a healthy extract from the book. Mr Nixon appears to assume that fiction about enduring the horrors of civil war in the Third World is ipso facto worthy of attention. Tugging at our heartstrings with partial summaries of Ms Adichie's story is wrongheaded. The importance of a work of fiction springs from the quality of its prose, not from the pathos of its tale - although I despair of getting Dickens fans to understand this.

Ligaya Mishan hails Brian Morton's Breakable You as "remarkable" in the first sentence of her review; nothing in what follows justifies this claim. The story is teasingly summarized, but in the end it's made to sound muddled. She does suggest, however, that readers who liked the "swift, satirical strokes" of Mr Morton's earlier novels ought to be prepared for something rather more earnest. Bryan Curtis's review of Schrödinger's Ball, by Adam Felber, isn't any more useful than Ms Mishan's. Talk about muddle! Is this novel a joke, a humorous riff on quantum physics or something more "experimental" (and hard to read)? Mr Curtis refuses to provide a clear answer to the question that his own commentary raises.

David Lipsky writes this week's lone reliable stand-alone review, giving Elsa Ferrante's first novel, Troubling Love (translated by Ann Goldstein), an enthusiastic reception. But the things that he praises about the novel aren't appealing to me. 

Visiting your hometown can often be a bummer, and Ferrante relentlessly compounds the bad luck. Delia puts on nice clothes and gets a menstrual stain (twice).

Things go downhill from there. 

Here are five excerpts from Max Winter's Fiction Chronicle:

The Futurist, by James P Othmer. "Yates realizes he must regain the sensitivity he abandoned in his youth or face a life of nihilism. But the book's high-rolling, whip-smart rhetoric doesn't stop pounding long enough for Yates to meet his goal."

Born Again, by Kelly Kerney. "The tale of a young Pentecostal's test of faith, Kerney's debut novel has guts and strength, even as it pivots on its narrator's uncertainty."

The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, by Neil Bissoondath. "On an island in Southeast Asia, Arun, ambitious and idealistic, leaves a life of privilege to teach in a poverty-stricken coastal town, Omeara. He faces hardships from the start..."

The Devil's Backbone, by Kim Wozencraft. "Wozencraft's story of murder and family dynamics in southern Texas is suspenseful, though much diminished by an implausible plot and forced attempts at depth."

In The Wake, by Per Petterson (translated by Ann Born). "Petterson writes with a grim, morbid hand, allowing hope in only at the very last minute. His words have a music reminiscent of W G Sebald, though with fewer grace notes.


This week's cover story is The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by David Camp. Only in the last paragraph of his lengthy review does A O Scott wake up from Mr Kamp's detailed celebration of our culinary sophistication.

Which is to say that the dinner-table revolution involves some acute contradictions. The United States of Arugula pointedly tells only half the story. The other half has been told by Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, which functions as a kind of dialectical companion to Kamp's book. The history of food in postwar America is as much a story of feedlot-raised hamburgers and strip mall franchises as it is of grass-fed steaks and cozy bistros. Kamp's last chapter, "Toward a McSustainable Future" ... tries to grapple with the paradoxes implicit in the attempt to promote gastronomic ethics on a mass scale, but readers of Michael Pollan's Omnivore may find it glib and lacking in rigor. 

It was only at this point that I found Mr Scott engaging with Mr Kamp's account in anything like a critical manner.

Alison McCulloch hands in a largely storytelling review of A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia, by Thomas Keneally. Tellingly, her piece becomes enlightening when she compares the new book to "the feistier and heftier rendering in The Fatal Shore (1987), by Robert Hughes, a fellow Australian.

Where Keneally delicately tiptoes down the middle, avoiding loaded language, Hughes wades in, unafraid to condemn the "white invasion" or to assail his homeland for its historical amnesia and "cultural cringe."

Jack Schafer is disappointed by the lack of excitement in Edward Kosner's memoir, It's News To Me: The Making and Unmaking of an Editor.

Did Kosner-the-editor inhibit Kosner-the-writer from being more honest about his profession? That's my guess. If only more of It's News to Me had been guided by the tabloid sensibility that allows him to describe how he and an uncle tried to kill his terminally ill mother, Annalee, with sleeping pills in 1962.

This good review tells only as much of Mr Kosner's story as is absolutely necessary. Paul Berman takes advantage of the recent publication of a new biography of I F Stone and a new collection of Stone's work to fill two pages of the Book Review with an assessment of this once-controversial writer, who did some mild spying for the Soviets - such as finding out what a senator's views on a certain subject might be, and passing on the information. Mr Berman is not very impressed by "All Governments Lie": The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I F Stone, by Myra MacPherson.

But a literature that adequately accounts for the people who never did become fanatics, a literature about the non-maniacs, about the people who remained liberal at heart yet, even so, kept applauding one left-wing tyranny after another - a convincing a thorough literature about these people is harder to find. MacPherson's biography, for all its landscape-painting of the left-wing past, seems to me not up to the task (and, in any case, the book contains to many small errors of fact: ....).

Mr Berman does recommend The Best of I F Stone, edited by Karl Weber.

From Jennifer Schuessler's review of College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds, Then and Now, by Lynn Peril, I gather that the book is no more serious than its subtitle suggests. "But it's the goofy antics and traditions at various bastions of privilege that really get her heart racing." Given the topic, Ms Schuessler can be forgiven a bit of amusing storytellings.

Two books about pop music, sort of (and, coming up, a "Music Chronicle," or roundup of five new books about pop). Stephen Metcalf wrestles with Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice and comes away trailing snark.

Thrilling as The Shape of Things to Come is, its greatest achievement may be finally exhausting its readers on American exceptionalism forever. This "city upon a hill" business, maybe it's time to give it a rest. Maybe we could complete our errand in the wilderness by assuming the mantle of democracy in humbler, if more tedious ways...

He also notes a passage that "I find ... to be utterly bewitching, but cannot for the life of me parse it for a stable, portable meaning." Troy Patterson has an easier time disposing of Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People, by Chuck Klosterman.

Elsewhere, the author composes paragraphs so sloppy and transitions so lazy as to convince you that he wasn't kidding when, in his third book, Killing Yourself to Live (2005), he said, "I write at roughly the same speed I read."

I gather that Mr Klosterman writes about pop-cultural matters (profiles, mostly) for magazines such as Esquire. Dave Itzkoff, the Book Review's science fiction columnist, covers a few new books in the [pop] Music Chronicle.

The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, by Dunstan Prial. "Prial nimbly covers a half-century of musical history with flair (he describes Hammond at recording sessions as looking "like a well-dressed barber's pole), though his prose is noticeably more energetic when he's writing about rock than about jazz. But his chapter on how Hammond delivered Springsteen to the Columbia fold, containing a lively original interview with the Boss, is as captivating a piece of music journalism as you will read all year."

Notorious C O P: The Inside Story of the Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay Investigations From the NYPD's First "Hip-Hop Cop, by Derrick Parker with Matt Diehl. "Here's hoping his larger message, that law enforcement will not earn the trust of the hip-hop world until it stops treating all rappers as potential criminals, isn't drowned out by all the chest-thumping."

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, A Backstage Journey Through Rock's Most Debauched Decade, by Lonn Friend. "His earnestness can be wearisome, but when Friend finds himself shilling for Jon Bon Jovi on QVC or struggling to sign the second-rate alt-rock band the Bogmen to Arista, the experiences are so comically, cosmically humbling that you can't help rooting for the guy."

Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker. "... Walker has produced a winding, inviting, occasionally aimless portrait of a bohemian quarter that played a prominent role in the foundation of rock music."

Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music, by Wendy Fonarow. "But look beyond the book's occasionally absurd academic language, and footnotes that cite Michel Foucault and Pamela Des Barres with equal facility, and you'll find a cogent and often perceptive look at the scene that yielded Radiohead, Portishead and the Futureheads."

I don't know quite what to make of Max Frankel's The American Way of Strategy, by Michael Lind. The review begins:

Whatever the worth of Michael Lind's prescriptions for American foreign policy, his glance back at our performance over the last 15 years is helpfully damning.

Mr Frankel agrees with the author about the impossibility of the United States' serving as the global police department, but not about much else. "And you can surely dismiss the first half of his book..." That's pretty sweeping! Mr Frankel ought to have declined this assignment, or worked out his disagreements with Mr Lind in a larger essay, one not intended to do double-duty as a book review. (Would anybody understand "the cuckoo essay" as a deprecatory term for this kind of review?)

iWOZ: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It - a book that could only be written by Steve Wozniak (with Gina Smith), garnishes a good review from J D Biersdorfer.

This book may not be the smoothest read in town, but it does seem to accurately reflect the restless, inventive mind of its author. Budding computer-science majors, Apple aficionados and electronics buffs will find plenty to ingest here, as Wozniak recounts the inspirations and thought processes for his designs. On thing is evident after wending your way through iWOZ: Steve Wozniak learned to "think differently" long before the company he helped found ever started using that phrase in a marketing campaign.

If any manufactured product straddles the Industrial Revolution, it is the grand piano. The best pianos are made slowly, by hand, but they're also the result of very advanced technology. James Barron's stupendous account of the construction of a single Steinway grand - the one that now sits in Grace Rainey Rogers auditorium, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - was serialized in The New York Times a few years ago, in real time (from May to the following April). Now his pieces have been bound in a tome: Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand. Edmund Morris, who has written books about Ronald Reagan and Ludwig van Beethoven, faults Mr Barron for treating the Steinway who sold the company to CBS in 1972 with "excessive respect." He also warns,

Readers less interested in handicraft will find Piano slow going. This is partly because the process it describes is slow, and partly because the book betrays its serial composition.

But his review is clearly favorable.

Finally, Andrew Hacker tackles two new books for people who wonder, as the review's title has it, "What's the matter with Democrats?" Brian Mann, in Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Rural Heart of America's Conservative Revolution and Thomas F Schaller, in Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, obviously argue diametrically-opposed approaches. Without coming out and saying so, Mr Hacker suggests that Mr Mann assumed that his thesis was correct and did his research accordingly. (Democrats must abandon their "irony and superiority.") He is more sympathetic to Mr Schaller's book. In the end, however, he believes that the Democrats need to take "retail politics" more seriously, finding undecided or non-voting left center Americans, getting them registered to vote, and walking them to the polls where necessary.

Gary Shteyngart's amusing Essay, "Ten Days With Oblomov: A Journey in My Bed," is fraught with Oblomovshchina, or the state of being Oblomov. I don't think that he ever got through the novel. Either of them.


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