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In the Book Review

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

Ach, it's the "Holiday Books" issue, bursting with titles. To keep the feature from eating up the next few days of my life, I'm going to cover stand-alone reviews only, ignoring the roundups even if they contain only one title.

The amount of storytelling in this issue is astonishing. When I described storytelling to someone today, he replied that it sounded like "the old fourth-grade strategy for writing book reports." Yes and no. Fourth-graders are really not equal to book criticism, and their reports are intended simply to prove that they have actually read a given book. For literary professionals to adopt the same summary technique is, given the experience and critical faculty that somehow got them the assignment in the first place, totally spankworthy. 

Fiction & Poetry

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued the Collected Poems of John Betjeman, to accompany its publication of A N Wilson's Betjeman: A Life. Charles McGrath spends most of his review on a thumbnail biography of his own. We get a little on the poetry,

Betjeman's taste in poetry overlapped with his taste in architecture: he had no use for the modern. He was actually a friend and former prep school pupil of T S Eliot, but he turned his back on Eliot's revolution and clung instead to the model of the Victorian poets who had shaped him in his youth.

and not much more about Mr Wilson's book:

Wilson's book, the latest to come off his seemingly nonstop assembly line, is a typically Wilsonian product - swift, efficient, and a little glib at times. It's not un-fond of its subject, but is more judicious in its claims than [Bevis] Hillier's overstuffed version, and, with access to some family correspondence that Hillier never saw, it's franker and more gossipy about the ironies and oddities of Betjeman's personal life.

I suppose that a review that assumed familiarity with the poet, still beloved in England, would have completely misfired. But Mr McGrath's reluctance to move beyond the story of Betjeman's life eloquently betrays the disinclination, not only of the Review but of the Times generally, to treat its readers as educated people.

Marisha Pessl's unfavorable review of Leanne Shapton's graphic novel, Was She Pretty? might at first sight seem reason enough to buy the book, but her conclusion seems to be intelligent.

One could argue futility is the point, that a book, devoid of plot, exploring jealousy, should inevitably lead us down a dead end, thus imitating its inventory of defunct affairs and fruitless emotions. If this is the case, if I have to choose a graphic novel, I'll be curling up in a chair not with stomach pain, thank you, but with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. His monsters tell us more about love, our darkest fears and what it means to be - like Jerry, Dennis and all the exes, no matter how tragically hip they might seem from a distance - human.

Ms Pessl is not to be blamed, I think, for failing to provide a view of two facing pages of Was She Pretty? That was the editors' job. Graphic novels vary greatly in their balance of image and text, and the reader of reviews has the right to expect a representative sample. They acknowledge as much further on in the issue, offering  shots of the cover and four sets of facing pages of Ivan Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. David Hajdu's review makes the case that this is the must-have book for anyone looking for an overview, however idiosyncratic, of the blooming hybrid of "art" and "literature."

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff?

Carl Hiaasen's Nature Girl gets a largely favorable review from John Leland. For the most part, the review is an egregious piece of storytelling. For those of you who arrived recently, let me define this term of art. "Storytelling," in a book review, is the redaction of the contents of the book under review in the reviewer's own words. Storytelling thus obscures the author's writing style while replacing assessment with summary. If there's one thing that I've learned in over a year of carefully reading the Book Review, it's that reviewers who storytell serve no purpose other than providing lazy people with sketches of books that they're never going to read. Chiming in with all the other reviews that I've come across, Mr Leland sings Mr Hiaasen's praises but adds, "What's missing here is an indelible and defining local depravity of the sort that a veteran South Florida journalist would have on file. ... Surely Hiaasen can do worse than this." Useless.

Dave Barry is a colleague of Mr Hiaasen's at the Miami Herald, but he grew up in Armonk (not far from me), and he has written a lightly fictionalized memoir of his early adolescence there. Henry Alford's review of The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog storytells right up to the penultimate paragraph. Then he judges. "Barry is playing to the heartland here," he writes, going on to suggest that the book may be just right for readers who find David Sedaris's humor a tad too strong.

Ask the Parrot, Richard Stark/Donald E Westlake's latest book about "his antihero Parker" gets an unaccountably long review from James Wolcott. Perhaps what's unaccountable is the review's high quality. Mr Wolcott clearly aims to assess the book in terms of the author's other work, under the Stark name and otherwise, and even to place it in the world of crime fiction generally.

Where most TV and movie crime dramas seem to unfold in a luxury brochure of glittering skylines, tones flesh and high-tech toys, the novels by Stark/Westlake stick to the back roads. Parker and his temporary crews take down scores in the drab, rundown sockets of the country that progress and prosperity have bypassed.

Mr Wolcott is scrupulous about keeping storytelling to a minimum.

Today's younger readers can be forgiven for not knowing that, long before the Giant Peach and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl was a master of heartlessly acute fiction for grownups. Erica Wagner, not my favorite reviewer, comes through for once with an intelligent appraisal of Dahl's short stories, which have been published in Collected Stories, edited and introduced by Jeremy Treglown.

Treglown remarks that the claim of misogyny "has to contend with the fact that while there are some awful women in the tales, there are still more awful men, and his most technically accomplished plots involve victories by wives over bad husbands. This is fair enough, and yet his women, even when sympathetically portrayed, seem a monstrous, alien regiment, their sexuality voracious and threatening.


Jay McInterney's review of John Hailman's Thomas Jefferson on Wine is a thoroughgoing piece of storytelling. Regrettable as storytelling is where fiction is concerned, it is intolerable in reviews of nonfiction, because the reader cannot distinguish what the reviewer is drawing from the book from what the reviewer knows from other sources. There are only two sentences in the full-page review that address Mr Hailman or his book. William F Buckley, Jr's review of Johann Sebastian Bach: Life and Work, by Martin Geck (translated by John Hargraves), is even more self-indulgent: it's all about him. He does manage this rather dismissive comment: "Geck's biography prompts the reader to surmise, reasonably, that there is not much left to say on the subject of Bach's musical life." Indeed.

Alex Kuczynski's review of French Women For All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes and Pleasure, by Mireille Guiliano, can only be characterized as resentful.

With its many descriptions of what sounds like the world's most idyllic childhood, French Women for All Seasons is like drinking a glass of good Champagne: light and bubbly, a brief and mildly invigorating tonic for the mind and soul. But eventually the bubbles dissipate. You're left with some very good recipes and some lively, if sentimental, prose.

She's also cross that Ms Guiliano doesn't provide diagrams to illustrate her scarf-tying instructions.

Luca Turin, the subject of The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr (2003), has written his own book, The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell. John Lanchester reviews it well, noting the issues on which Mr Turin disagrees with the majority opinion among biologists about the nature of smell - he believes it to be a matter of waves, not molecular shape - but concluding that

The general reader can't adjudicate this kind of scientific dispute; though we're likely to root for Turin, not least because it would be corking good fun if one of the great mysteries of science were solved by a nutty professor with a sideline in perfume criticism.

Thomas Mallon storytells his way through Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, by Benita Eisler. "This is a likable book, but it badly needs to slow down" is not an enlightening observation. What I had to say about Charles McGrath's piece on Betjeman at the beginning of this entry applies just as well here, so I won't say it again. Bruce Handy is much better at reviewing Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, by Neal Gabler. There's still too much storytelling - the piece is unnecessarily lengthy - but there's far more engagement with Mr Gabler's actual book.

If Gabler's Disney can seem both elusive and the trim sum of a few neon parts, maybe that's because the scope and impact of the achievement are so broad while the protagonist himself is frustratingly narrow. A problem with the book - and it's Disney's fault, not Gabler's - is that Disney, the man, isn't the best companion for a 600-plus-age marathon. Largely friendless, moody, impatient, not much interested in sex or acquisition, increasingly unpleasant and imperious as he grew older, he was a workaholic and not, it seems, much else.

What this passage suggests is that Mr Gabler might better have written about the Disney enterprise, not its initial genius.

Richard Schickel's review of Simon Louvish's Mae West: It Ain't No Sin looks like a piece of storytelling at first glance, but it's actually not. Writing about Mae West as an actress, which Mr Schickel does, is the sort of thing that Messrs McGrath and Mallon fail to do when they scant their writers' (Betjeman's and Sand's) work.

The character she created was completely of her own devising. Even the industrious Louvish cannot find anyone else who significantly aided her in its creation.

Mr Schickel writes that the biography is "demonically researched," but also that "West's true sexual nature" eludes Mr Louvish. One comes away mildly amazed that anyone remembers the somewhat freakish actress.

Yet more storytelling: Joseph Dornan doesn't actually review Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theatre in America until he has given us a crash course on the subject. Then this: 

Stefan Kanfer, a former writer for Time magazine, has put together a kind of mash note to the Yiddish theater that also manages to take on many of its qualities, good and bad. It's written in a crowd-pleasing style that ladles on the irresistible anecdotes (many of them taken from Lulla Rosenfeld's superior history of the theater). ...

Despite this, Kanfer's book solidly conveys the excitement and impact of Yiddish theater, not to mention its long shadow.

Question: Is Ms Rosenfeld's book the one to read? Of Tunney: Boxing's Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey," David Oshinsky writes,

Tunney, by the veteran sportswriter Jack Cavanaugh, is an entertaining if worshipful account of the boxer, crammed with vivid descriptions but rarely moving outside the ring.

The rest of the page is pure storytelling. There is no way to know just what "outside the ring" matters might have been of any importance.

There are a few books about conquest this week, and I'm tempted to overlook this depressing subject. As Felipe Fernández-Armesto notes in his Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, Captain Cook confessed to seeking "the pleasure of being first." Laudably, Candice Millard's review rarely strays far from the book

Few scholars are as qualified as Fernández-Armesto to write a history of exploration. A professor of history at Tufts University, the editor of The Times Atlas of World Exploration and the author of an array of books on enormous subjects - from Civilizations to Millennium to Truth: A History - he has the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding necessary to do justice to so formidable a topic. The result is a brilliant and readable book.

I'd have liked, though, to have a better idea of Mr Fernández-Armesto's attack. Does he discuss the Crusades, for example? To what extent is "exploration" something that Western countries pursued but China abandoned? Is there more to it than that? Well, those are my questions, undoubtedly of limited interest.

There's yet another new book about Scott of the Antarctic. I wish that I understood the appeal of this topic, except I don't. I oughtn't to complain; I've never read a review of any book about the doomed expedition, and now that I have, I see that there is a question of apportioning blame: how much of what went wrong was the fault of the Royal Navy's way of doing things (which was outrageously Luddite), and how much can we attribute to Scott's poor judgment. Here is Jonathan Dore on Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy:

But there is a fine line between a Romantic sense of fate and a mechanistic determinism that sees outcomes as being predetermined by upbringing and cultural background, and for such an atypically intellectual naval officer, the question must be asked why Scott was unable to overcome his background enough to see, as Frederick Jackson did, that his time would have been better spent, and his men better served, by learning to drive dogs properly than by taking the dogs' place in harness. For all the many attractions of his book, David Crane offers no answers that convincingly exonerate Scott from a significant share of responsibility for his own demise.

There you have it. Mr Dore's review is fully engaged with Mr Crane's judgment of the case. I daresay that John Rothchild's review of The Boys of Everest: Chris Bonington and the Tragedy of Climbing's Greatest Generation, by Clint Williams Willis, and No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks, by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts, is a good one, because I learned rather little from it. More than any other reviewer in this issue, Mr Rothchild jumps into a lively discussion of issues raised by both books, Times Literary Supplement style, to the extent that he doesn't put a date on Climbing's Greatest Generation. Apparently it's ongoing, as both Chris Bonington and Mr Viesturs are written about in the present tense.

Constance Casey, a professional gardener, gives a favorable, if somewhat insidery, review to The Passionate Gardener, a book written in 1938 by Rudolf Borchardt but only now for the first time translated into English by Henry Martin. Ms Casey places Borchardt and his work very nicely, notes the density of his prose, and sums the book up nicely:

No matter what manipulations we contrive - excluding or accepting aliens, ordering or imitating nature - there's no going back to Eden. The gardener's longing Borchardt speaks of is, as he says, unappeasable.

Here's Ben Yagoda, a journalist who has written about The New Yorker, on Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life, by Linda H Davis:

...the main problem with this biography is that Davis seems to have been seduced by his one-liners, three marriages (all of them, astonishingly, to women who resembled Morticia Addams) and thousands of dates, including Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Jackie Kennedy. The art gets lost in the gossip.

Mr Yagoda ends the review by urging interested readers to access another, out-of-print book.

Is this the first time that the Buckley writers père et fils have appeared in the same issue of the Book Review? It's the first time that I've noticed it. Christopher B's review of Spy: The Funny Years, History by George Kalogerakis;edited with an introduction and annotations by Graydon Carter and Kurt Anderson, is a handsome piece of work, generously admiring the ultra-sophisticated humor of the funniest magazine of the Twentieth Century and praising Messrs Carter and Anderson for running a shop in which writers outdid themselves writing hair-raisingly rude journalism. Nobody who delighted in Spy during its heyday has to be told who the "short-fingered vulgarian" is, but it's sweet of Mr Buckley to repeat the phrase with a clinching ID. "Something that much fun was of course doomed not to last." Isn't it the truth! There comes a point at which everyone sees how it's done, or perhaps only the writers see how it's done - what inspires them, how their minds do funny - and then it just isn't fun anymore. I'm hoping that my favorite Spy expose, a preposterous assessment of easy colleges for dumb, rich kids that ranked institutions by using a dense but fact-based equation, is included in the anthology.

Perhaps the one indispensable book in this week's review is Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by eminent nature writer Barry Lopez. Robert Sullivan's extremely favorable review of what amounts to a glossary is eloquent:

Literature, or something like it, hovers over the project like an impending storm, the perception of nature being tied up with writing especially since Thoreau, who is referred to on numerous occasions, naturally. But the sharpest writers have the John McPhee-like ability to let the specifics of the landform take care of the poetics, or, if point-blank poetry is required, to let poets who have already trod the particular territory lead the way, as Robert Hass does in his entry for horizons, which quotes Wallace Stevens:

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres

Of sea and sky.

Mr Hass must have been talking about Key West.

Assassinating Shakespeare: The True Confessions of a Bard in the Bush, by Thomas Goltz, is a book that I've been hearing about for a while, because a friend of mine knows the author well and helped out as a reader during the gestation. Perhaps for that reason I'm prepared to forgive Alan Riding for - you guessed it - storytelling his way through a very favorable review. Mr Goltz has achieved some note from his three books about the troubled Caucasus, the Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Georgia Diaries; the book at hand may explain how he came to be someone who regards civil strife as, first of all, lively. In search of his brother, Eddy, Mr Goltz found himself without any resources but the volume of Shakespeare that he carried with him (he had hoped for a more Thespian career), and he used this to entertain the indigenous population.

Occasionally expats invited him home. In Zambia, in exchange for hospitality, Goltz performed in an insane asylum for adolescents, an audience that reacted to Macbeth's dagger scene "with half the assembled kids (those with no physical handicaps to slow them) clawing at the doors to get out, waiting in terror in a dozen tribal languages while the other half hid under their shirts, sobbing or crawling after their more mobile fellows." His host seem satisfied. "Good show," he remarked.

Vintage Goltz, I assure you - and I thank Mr Riding for the inimitable quotation.

This week's essay is by listomane Ben Schott, "The Bibliognost's Handbook. Profoundly trivial, it includes a list of "Odd Book Titles," chosen annually since 1978, by something called The Diagram Group. My favorite, which doesn't really seem so odd if you think about it, is Versailles: The View From Sweden (1988).


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The author of "The Boys of Everest" is Clint Willis, not Williams.

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