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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

Don Chiasson's review of C K Williams's Collected Poems is generally enthusiastic, but it complains that the poet's "outraged new poems about Iraq end this volume on a note of bluster and treacle." There are, however, plenty of quotes to allow a reader to judge for himself.

This year's final cover story goes to What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers. Francine Prose's review explains this peculiar title and the joint nature of the project that the book embodies. Achak Deng is a real-life Sudanese refugee whose harrowing tale was Mr Eggers's raw material.

Eggers's generous spirit and seemingly inexhaustible energy - some of the qualities that made his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so popular - transform Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with all the imaginative sweep, the scope, and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.

Ms Prose also writes, "The considerable appeal of Valentino's personality and the force of Eggers's talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience."

Benjamin Anastas's review of Last Seen Leaving, a "thriller" by Kelly Braffet, appears to be baffled by Ms Braffet's blending of high writing and low trope.

If only Braffet weren't so addicted to the cheaper forms of literary thrill-seeking, Last Seen Leaving might take the reader on a more satisfying ride. As it is, a novel that could have moved us as it races through unfamiliar country is content to circle the multiplex parking lot flashing a bumper sticker that reads unsafe at any speed.

I couldn't tell whether Last Seen Leaving is a genuine novel with pulp garnishes or a piece of pulp with no claim to be reviewed by the Review.

Nonfiction

First, the "big" books, or books on big topics. Christopher Caldwell takes pains to make it clear that The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, by Walter Benn Michaels, is, notwithstanding its title, a book of the left, not the right.

What interests Michael is the ideology of diversity, particularly as it is enunciated in universities. For him, this ideology has a basic "trick" to it: "It treats economic difference along the lines of racial and sexual difference, thus identifying the problem not as the difference but as the prejudice (racism, sexism) against the difference." As long as no wishes ill to the poor, and as long as the poor are not made to feel inferior, there are no grounds for complaint, and no basis for attacked capitalism.

A complex but rewarding review.

Gary Hart is kind but firm about Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.

Truly great leaders possess a strategic sense, an inherent understanding of how the framework of their thinking and the tides of the times fit together and how their nation's powers should be applied to achieve its large purposes. The Audacity of Hope is missing that strategic sense. Perhaps the senator should address this in his next book. By doing so, he would most certainly propel himself into the country's small pantheon of leaders in a way that personal narrative and sudden fame cannot.

Jeffry A Frieden is similarly disappointed by Joseph E Stiglitz's Making Globalization Work, noting that, while it is "a well-written and informative primer on the major global economic problems," it offers a slate of unrealistic fixes.

However, his proposals are almost utopian in their reliance upon good will, enlightened public opinion and moral imperatives to overcome selfish but deeply entrenched private or national interests that do not share his goal of making globalization work for as many countries and as many people as possible.

Two titles might be bundled together as history. Peter D Kramer gives Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology, by George Prochnik, a very useful review. Putnam, the author's great-grandfather, was America's leading neurologist at the time of Freud's visit in 1909, and Putnam's Camp focuses on the impact of Viennese psychotherapy upon the development of a distinctly American psychology, and concludes that it was ultimately superficial.

[Prochnik] sees Putnam as an influence on Freud through negation, arguing that Freud's assertion of a death instinct in Beyond the Pleasure Principle was a rebuke to Putnam's optimism. As for America, the variants of psychoanalysis that flourished emphasized the sublimation that so appealed to Putnam even after Freud had lost faith in it.

Ingrid Rowland's review of Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe, by Thomas Cahill, is favorable but not without its barbs.

Cahill loves to spin out a yarn as palpably as an old Irish bard by the peat fire, or the old Greek, Hesiod, at his blacksmith's forge, and his personal asides seem to add to this intimate, old-time atmosphere.

Ms Rowland also notes that the book is "handsomely produced, with footnotes marked in medieval uncial letters and margins filled with fanciful designs like those in the margins of medieval manuscripts." She makes it quite clear that Mysteries, while it very well might provide a magical and intoxicating introduction to medieval history for young readers, is not a serious book for adults.

There are two biographies, of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Madame du Châtelet. The latter, as you may recall, was Voltaire's brilliant lover, a translator of Newton and Mandeville into French and a formidable mathematician in her own right. Caroline Weber praises La Dame d'Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise du Châtelet, by Judith P Zinsser, for its contents, if not for its style.

Today's women will find much that is familiar in Du Châtelet's multitasking lifestyle, which Zinsser, who teaches history at Miami University in Ohio and is an expert in women's history, describes with understandable and infectious appreciation. The author's prose, though, is riddled with tiresome repetitions.

It would have behooved Ms Weber to make mention of amateur historian Nancy Mitford's eminently readable Voltaire in Love, if only to demonstrate how much more detailed and penetrating Ms Zinsser's professional book might or might not be.

In his review of Isaac B Singer: A Life, by Florence Noiville, D T Max storytells the writer's career before finally dismissing the biography. He quotes Ms Noiville and then scolds her for failing to answer her own question.

" ... Apparently he was repelled by something within himself. But what?"

... This short new book has plenty of pleasures - most of all a fluid recounting of the facts of Singer's life and an agreeable outsider's engagement with American Jewish culture - but we will have to wait for a harder-boiled effort to find out.

Philip Lopate writes generously about Outsider: John Rockwell on the Arts, 1967-2006, a collection of essays chosen by the critic himself. Although he faults Mr Rockwell's manner -

The author's prose is lively, lucid and direct. The downside, made more apparent over 500-plus pages, is that it can also be flippant, overcute (especially in endings), lazy and unresistant, with a preponderance of passive verbs and spritzing of vague positive adjectives.

- he finds that the collection

also provides a valuable record of the cultural period through which we have just passed: an enthusiastic verbal snapshot album of everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Shostakovich and Mark Morris. Finally, it offers invaluable insights into the evolution and career of a working critic, one who has survived the many fashion shifts in pop and high culture by remaining optimistic and young at heart.

Food writer Julia Reed is scathing about A Stew Or A Story: An Assortment of Short Works, by M F K Fisher. The fault isn't Fisher's - "I don't know a journalist working today who wouldn't wince if every submission he or she had ever written ... were dredged up for all the world to see - but that of editor Joan Reardon.

In this collection, spanning five decades, Reardon has gone past the bottom of the barrel - she has gone beneath it. ... most of the subject matter really is plain old gastronomy. There is precious little of the other stuff of life, and what there is has been recycled.

Finally, there is Mark Sussman's Nonfiction Chronicle.

Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw, by Maryanne Vollers. "Vollers's account is minutely detailed and wide-ranging (bomb mechanics, paranoid politics, criminal psychology, Appalachian folklore), opening up the many dimension of her tale without disrupting its cinematic momentum."

Feather in the Storm: A Childhood Lost in Chaos, by Emily Wu and Larry Engelmann. "Feather in the Storm lacks the insight and artistry of a first-rate memoir, but it is an effective testament to what Mao's social experiment inflicted on one girl."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography, by Piero Melograni (translated by Lydia G Cochrane). "The result is too limited to become essential reading on Mozart, but is absorbing as a filial psychodrama, depicting Mozart's slow emergence from the suffocating embracing of his father Leopold, the quintessential stage father."

Ninety Miles: Cuban Journeys in the Age of Castro, by Ian Michael Jones. "James, the Venezuelan bureau chief for The Associated Press, adds some cursory historical context to the raw anecdotes he strings together, but fails to construct a narrative worthy of these poignant memories."

Blind Into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq, by James Fallows. "By virtue of cautious, patient reporting, Fallows anticipated some of the Iraq war's missteps, and it the articles in Blind Into Baghdad seem to arrive at what is now the conventional wisdom, he go there before the journalistic pack."

Paul Collins's Essay, "Jefferson's Lump of Coal," discusses the haughtily anti-Jeffersonian pamphlet that Clement Clarke Moore wrote nearly twenty years before "A Visit From St Nicholas." Moore attacked the 1804 incumbent of the presidency for, among other things, a belief in (pre-Darwinian) evolution, racism, and Francophilia.

True, Moore created the sentimental family Christmas. But he also touched on what Americans would clobber one another over for the remaining 364 days of the year.

 

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