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In the Book Review

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


Although he feels that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) might have been a little longer, so as to allow somewhat fuller treatment of the lives of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, Tom LeClair gives the author's first book to be translated into English a very favorable review.

What distinguishes Kehlmann are quickness of pace and lightness of touch. He has said he admires The Simpsons. If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist.

The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits, is the novel that everyone's currently talking about, and Emily Nussbaum's review communicates a sense of the book's edginess.

But the book is most successful at exploring the psychology of a particular type of teenage girl, an apparently colorless figure who reveals under pressure a perverse bravado. Oscillating between vampish provocateur and blank slate, Mary may not be precisely realistic - her dialogue is so arch it practically bends backward - but there is something recognizable about this mess of a teenage girl, so enraged at the lies of adults that she's willing to take on any mask to expose them.

Troy Patterson's review of Only Revolutions, by Mark Z Danielewski, succeeded only in baffling me. An "epic tone poem"? The quotes suggest that the novel - if it is a novel - is written in blank verse. There is also the hint that the book can be turned 180 degrees and still be readable. "But it's clear that Danielewski has an entrancing way with overrich wordplay..." Yikes!

If we are to call Only Revolutions a novel, then we must, at the very least, call it a road novel in which the road, one of those numbered routes from an old, weird folk song, is a Möbius strip.


Here are the ten books about the state of American politics that Michael Kinsley "reviews" this week, complete with very substantial extracts, relatively speaking, from Mr Kinsley's remarks. If I were one of the writers, I'd be pretty steamed about the short shrift. 

Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America, by Byron L Dorgan. "an exercise in assertion rather than persuasion..."

State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, by Patrick J Buchanan. "at his usual fever pitch..."

Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate, by Ronald Dworkin. "Of this season’s books deploring the quality of our political discourse, the classiest..."

Does American Democracy Still Work? by Alan Wolfe. "faces manfully up to “the new politics of democracy” in which sentimental populism seems to be owned by the right. Although Wolfe clearly regards this as terribly unfair (as do I) and a result of voters’ failure to know their own self-interest, he manages to make his argument for more “quality control” in American democracy in ideologically neutral terms."

The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, by Thomas E Mann and Norman J Ornstein. "Urging reform at every opportunity, they seem like the loyal spouse of an alcoholic or drug addict, desperately pushing their beloved into rehab."

Activism, Inc: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America, by Dana R Fisher. "a charmingly recherché complaint..."

Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit, by Mark Green. "If you want every current beef about American democracy — or at least every current left-wing beef — in one handy volume..."

Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It), by Sanford Levinson. "admirably gutsy and unfashionable..."

Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, by Spencer Overton. No comment!

Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen: Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count, by Steven F Freeman and Joel Bleifuss. "the authors offer no particular reason to believe the random exit polls and disbelieve the actual vote."

Scott Stossel's favorable review of Size Matters: How Height Affects the Health, Happiness and Success of Boys - and the Men They Become, by Stephen S Hall, is very entertaining, but it fails to register the book's seriousness. Is this an after-dinner, who'd 'a' thunk it treat? A digest of psychological studies indicating X and Y? "Other"? And what is to be done about height, anyway?

Mixing traditional science reporting with personal anecdote, Hall ranges widely across popular culture and the scientific literature to explore such issues as what the average height of a population can reveal about culture and society (Why are the Dutch so tall? And why are Americans becoming relatively shorter?), and how the Food and Drug Administration's approval of human growth hormone as a "treatment" for undersize children in 2003 changed the politics and science of height.

Too bad there won't be a way to track the height of people who buy this book. Richard Parker reports on two new books about dead tycoons, Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw, and Mellon: An American Life, by David Cannadine. The review is lopsided, storytelling the Carnegie while finding fault with Mr Cannadine's somewhat forgiving handling of Mellon (and noting that the late Paul Mellon, son of Andrew, asked Mr Cannadine to write the book). No reason to buy Mr Nasaw's book is advanced.

David Margolick wrestles with David Mamet's The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, and in the process shows the playwright to be breathtakingly conservative.

As a cure for all this dissonance, Mamet offers, to use a notion out of Glengarry Glen Ross, a surprising "lead," one beyond the kin of Shelley "The Machine" Levene and the other real estate hustlers in the play: faith. Jews should stop trying to answer the unanswerable and yield to Jewish ritual and wisdom. After all, he asks, how could all those sages have had it so wrong all these years. Jews should force themselves to go to shul, and sit there until the spirit penetrates and soothes them.

The gist of Kevin Baker's review of Thunderstruck, by Erik Larson, is that the book is not up to the author's standard. After a lot of storytelling, Mr Baker complains that the two stories that Mr Larson has intertwined in Thunderstruck seem to have "been linked mostly for the chance to throw in a lurid murder - a dollop of the old ultraviolence to help the history go down."

Readers deserve better than this, and Larson can deliver it, as he showed in Isaac's Storm, his outstanding account of the Galveston hurricane of 1900. It would be gratifying to see him turn his considerable skills once again to a compelling historical narrative - straight up, no blood chaser.

Mr Baker nonetheless makes Thunderstruck sound like a very good read. Mary Roach does much the same for The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that [oh, must I?] Shaped Our History, by Molly Caldwell Crosby, an account of the uphill battle that Walter Reed fought to convince his Army superiors that yellow fever spread not by dirt but by mosquitoes. Ms Roach is adept at storytelling, but one perceives that the underlying book cannot be without merit.

Verlyn Klinkenborg begins his review of Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, by Julianne Lutz Newton, with a jaw-dropping assertion.

For most readers, Aldo Leopold is A Sand County Almanac. We have a hard time remembering the life that led up to that book, a hard time thinking of it as a posthumous work or imagining what point it represented - except the endpoint - in the arc of Leopold's thought.

Sand County what? Eventually, it emerges that Aldo Leopold was an important environmentalist in the first half of the last century. All he has to say about the book is that it has "few flaws"; the value of the book lies in its subject-matter, of whom Mr Klinkenborg writes with piety.

This week's silly books are Bass Madness: Bigmouths, Big Money, and Big Dreams at the Bassmaster Classic, by Ken Schultz, reviewed by Field Maloney, and The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie, by Chris Miller. Christopher Buckley's review of the latter is very entertaining. The book, he writes,

is sophomoric, disgusting, tasteless, vile, misogynist, chauvinist, debased and at times so unspeakably revolting that any person of decent sensibility would hurl it into the nearest Dumpster. I couldn't put it down. I make this self-indicting admission with all due trepidation, but there is. For better or worse, this an utterly hilarious book. [sic]

Trying to follow Mr Maloney's apparently favorable review was as difficult as laughing with Mr Buckley's was easy. People watch bass fishing on television? May I please leave the room?

Peter Dizikes's Essay, "Twilight of the Idols," argues that changes in the way that science is done foretell a change in the way that it is written about, especially as regards scientific biography.


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