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In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week, David Kirby writes one of the best poetry reviews that I've ever read, covering Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold. The review gives a vivid sense of the poet's aesthetic, and, in passing, offers a fantastically useful taxonomy:

Whitman’s exactly the right patron for a poet like Kinnell. While contemporaries as different as John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder and Mark Strand all write a tighter, more gnomic line of the kind Emily Dickinson is famous for, Kinnell, like Allen Ginsberg, Donald Hall, Philip Levine and Gerald Stern, prefers to lasso poetry’s errant dogies with the long, floppy line that Whitman used, a line that sometimes misses its target, but what the hell — that loose charm is part of the appeal of Whitman and his followers to boot.

Mr Kirby notes that the book comes with a CD, on which Mr Kinnell reads "in a steady, pleasant voice." Sold!

Reading Liesl Schillinger's enthusiastic review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, I had to bang my head a bit to dispel the dissonance of Michiko Kakutani's thorough panning in Books of the Times, the newspaper's daily feature.

Thomas Pynchon's new novel, ''Against the Day,'' reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

Quaaludes! Have mercy, Michiko! Ms Schillinger's excellent review, however, makes it clear to me why I would have no patience for a book that she clearly likes. 

Lovers of the detective genre might find echoes of Conan Doyle’s peculiar American coal-mine-country intrigue, “The Valley of Fear”; fans of Horatio Alger will spot nods to by-your-own-bootstraps nostalgia; P. G. Wodehouse fanatics will be amazed to discover abundant Woosterish scenes peopled by wacky Brits (they belong to an esoteric society called True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or T.W.I.T.); sci-fi and fantasy devotees will find homages to Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and H. G. Wells (“Walloping Wellsianism!” a character cries); comics junkies will think of Neil Gaiman; admirers of “adult” fiction will savor salacious tangles redolent of Tom Robbins; and western aficionados can revel in tales of vigilantism, vendetta and heartbreak in rugged Western mining towns and old Mexico.

Conan Doyle and Wodehouse aside, this is a roster of writers - of kinds of writing - in which I have no interest. And I would not care to read a novel that reminded me of the two authors whom I do like; I should rather just read them. Ms Schillinger quotes enough from the novel to put me off my lunch. So much for this week's cover story.

Jean-Claude Carrière's Please, Mr Einstein (translated by John Brownjohn) gets a good review from Dennis Overbye, whose most recent book is Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance. Mr Overbye lays out the novel's concept -

In a room somewhere in a building outside of time, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, Albert Einstein sits and works on his universal plan, plays his violin, puffs a pipe and fends off an outraged Isaac Newton, among other visitors. Into this scene comes an unnamed young woman with a tape recorder, which might or might not work under these circumstances — her watch apparently doesn’t — intent on getting an interview.

- and then, having assured us that the book "far exceeded my meager expectations," he samples some of its pleasures.

Robert F Worth makes The Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction, edited by Denys Johnson-Davies ("perhaps the most distinguished Arabic-to-English translator now living"), sound like an absolutely indispensable book for any serious humanist. He notes that the tradition of Arabic fiction is not particularly old, and also points out that big differences between written and spoken Arabic pose a preliminary literary challenge that every writer must meet in the most suitable way.  

Inevitably, politics play a role in some of the stories, often for the worse; self-righteousness and melodrama seem to come with this turf. This is true not just of fiction touching on Palestine and the Lebanese civil war but on women’s rights. Two stories by Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian who moved to the United States in the 1990s, are angry rants against Muslim treatment of women, and they are among the few stories in the book where an author appears to be playing to a Western audience. (It is worth noting, in this context, that the readership for serious fiction in the Arab world remains tiny by comparison with the West.)

Finally, Elsa Dixler rounds up five novels for a Fiction Chronicle.

From A Crooked Rib, by Nuruddin Farah. "...a young writer's novel, with an intermittently shaky point of view and language that can be awkward, but it demonstrates Farah's extraordinary ability to enter the consciousness of an unsophisticated woman."

Exiles in America, by Christopher Bram. "Bram's novel grapples with big issues - passion versus reason, the nature of marriage, the intersection of private and public lives - but its well-made plot is slowed by lots of talking and by Zack's many ruminations."

Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman. "Although the novel's plot is somewhat creaky and its climax seems contrived, the strength of this insular congregation is clearly conveyed." For my very different take, click here.

Piece of Work, by Laura Zigman. "In this novel, apparently, it is possible for a mother to have it all."

Famous Writers School, by Stephen Carter. "A clever satire, Famous Writers School consists of the correspondence between Wendell and his pupils. Oblivious Wendell is a truly terrible writer - his stories are laugh-out-loud awful - and his advice is deliciously wrong-headed, tone-deaf and pretentious."


This week's nonfiction is either biographical or, in the case of three books denouncing Ann Coulter, rantographical. Frank Lloyd Wright, Colin Powell, Gore Vidal and Jane Goodall are the subjects of four new biographies, or, in Gore Vidal's case, memoir.

Nicolai Ourousoff is not impressed by The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Taliesin Fellowship, by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman.

The authors’ biggest insight, if you want to call it that, is that creative geniuses can also be abusive and self-absorbed. Their second biggest insight is that, isolated for years on end in the countryside, healthy, hard-bodied young men end up having a lot of sex, sometimes with one another.

Beyond the gossip, “The Fellowship” is packed with the tired clichés that have dogged architects for centuries: the leaky roofs, unchecked narcissism and total disregard for clients. The implication is that since Wright was a bad man, his work must contain, somewhere deep in its core, a corrupting antisocial gene. Taking an absurdly simplistic view of both the inner workings of the creative mind and of early-20th-century American cultural life, “The Fellowship” would be more fun if it weren’t also so predictable.

The final kiss-off is even deadlier: "Unfortunately, the notion that contradictory qualities can coexist in the same man seems beyond the authors' grasp.

Christopher Hitchens is tetchy about Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir, 1964-2006, the sequel to Gore Vidal's Palimpsest, owing more, I suspect, to the botheration of meeting a word count than to the smallish flaws that he ticks off. Point to Point Navigation, Mr Hitchens writes,

is almost chaste in its recollections, is concerned mainly with the doings of other people and bears an imposing portrait of a silvery old lion in winter . A flippant working title for it, we learn, was "Between Obituaries," and indeed, a roll call of deaths and funerals among contemporaries is set down with a blend of melancholy and relish: "Just as I decided that I was done with obituaries the pope and Saul Bellow die." The confusion of tenses there is revealing in itself.

Michael Lewis is quietly derisive about Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, by Karen DeYoung. Taking up a passage in which Ms DeYoung describes the young Powell's attraction to military uniforms, Mr Lewis suggests,

A less sympathetic biographer might have seized on this point in Powell’s character — a perhaps excessive interest in the surface of things — turned it into a weapon and run him through with it. DeYoung, an associate editor at The Washington Post, offers it up more mercifully as just another of Powell’s personality traits, to be set incongruously beside his courage, ambition, humor, evasiveness, charm, calculation and decency. It’s not that she is entirely uncritical; it’s just that she is blessed with the ability to see through her subject and forgive him for the view. She’s written a portrait of Powell that is as revealing as it can be and remain flattering, and as flattering as it can be and remain revealing. And she’s written it very well.

What Mr Lewis derides is the image of Colin Powell as a noble soldier trapped by loyalty. In the Mr Lewis's eyes, Mr Powell "wasn't a soldier. He was a wily old political hand." Although the word "opportunist" does not appear in the review, it always seems to lurk around the corner.

Deborah Blum is mostly pleased about Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, by Dale Peterson.

Fortunately, the biography transcends its rather awestruck beginning and grows, detail by detail, into an absorbing portrait. At its best, it provides a remarkable account of what a person can accomplish through courage and self-sacrifice — and a reminder of how few of us are willing to commit our lives to such an extent. Whether Goodall really “redefined man,” as the book’s subtitle asserts, may be open to debate, but there’s no doubt that she powerfully redefined the way we see our fellow primates.

Ms Blum, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her writing about primate research, complains that the biography is short on "introspection and personal analysis," but she clearly forgives this shortcoming.

Jacob Heilbrunn is dismissive of the three Ann Coulter books: Soulless: Ann Coulter and the Right-Wing Church of Hate, by Susan Estrich; Brainless: The Lies and Lunacy of Ann Coulter, by Joe Maguire; and I Hate Ann Coulter!, by "Unanimous." You've got to love this:

While Coulter has skillfully disseminated such nonsense, her detractors supply no evidence that she has ever had an original thought. And they can’t. Instead of exposing Coulter as a mortal threat to the Republic, the only thing they expose is their own credulity. In the end, these witless little books don’t puncture the Coulter myth. They inflate it.

Henry Alford's Essay, "Name That Book," is really a multiple-choice test, about titles and subtitles that might have been, that you will probably not do very well on. So don't waste your time trying to guess the correct answer; just head for the answers, which, conveniently, are not printed upside-down.


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