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In the Book Review

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

This week's Review is as good as last week's was awful. Last week's list of the year's hundred best book is whittled down to ten titles, of which I see that I've read three, all of them novels.

Fiction & Poetry

Once again, Joel Brouwer and Eric McHenry team up to fill slightly less than a page and a half of the Book Review  with reports on nine volumes of poetry. They say that any publicity is great publicity, but it's hard to believe that these thumbnail sketches in this Poetry Chronicle will attract many new readers, or any at all who aren't already vigorously breasting the poetry swim. What's wanted is verse and comment: an entire poem, preferably, or an intelligible excerpt, followed by an appreciation in which the reviewer highlights the poem's workings. For the time being, sadly, we're stuck with blather. Here follow the salients, first from Mr Brouwer's five:

Ooga-Booga, By Frederick Seidel. "I can't decide whether Seidel has more in common with Philip Larkin or John Ashbery."

A Form of Optimism, by Roy Jacobstein. "...when he does kick off the sensible shoes of the "anecdote + reflection = insight" school, he shows himself capable of some truly fresh and vivid writing."

Lions Don't Eat Us, by Constance Quarterman Bridges. "But any such complaints are more than offset by the captivating narratives and hard-earned insights to be found in this elegantly constructed collection.

Ruin, by Cynthia Cruz. "Lovely and evocative lines like 'A desert city strobing in the distance like sex' and 'I was kneeling in the willow/When the sun fell back into its crib of poison' lose some of their luster when you realize Cruz might as easily have written 'Sex strobing in the distance like a desert city' or 'I was kneeling in the poison/When the willow fell back into its crib of sun" without doing any perceptible harm to her meaning."

Logorrhea, by Adrian C Louis. "Louis's conversational style and salty language can bring Charles Bukowski to mind, but Louis is less prone to self-pity, and his indignation is more righteous: 'We cannot tell you why we spent/a lifetime crawling when we/had wings that were strong,/supremely brown , and so holy'."

Mr McHenry's four:

Black Box, by Erin Belieu. "Belieu is scrupulous enough to find room in her poems both for blind rage and a recognition of rage's blindness."

God of This World To His Prophet: Poems, by Bill Coyle. "If some of the poems that precede 'Aubade' seem, by contrast, a little too much under his control, offering the mastery without the mystery, well, there's a lot to be said for mastery."

Where X Marks the Spot, by Bill Zavatsky. "His strengths, which are considerable, disclose themselves slowly over whole poems - pacing, proportion, the faithfully reproduced movements of a likable mind."

Splendor: Poems, by Steve Kronen. "Kronen's skill with the figurative allows him to borrow figures from familiar sources (the Old Testament, classical mythology), apply them to familiar objects, and still produce something original.

There are three books of stories in this week's Fiction rubric, two novels, and four authors. Alice Munro is the author of two of the short-fiction collections.

More than any other writer, Alice Munro reminds me of the gnomic line from Wallace Stevens's "Credences of Summer":

                             This is the barrenness

Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

I do wonder why the Review's editors approved Andreas Ventura's portrait of the artist, which resembles nothing so much as a snapshot that a child has rather nastily scribbled over. A O Scott's joint review of The View from Castle Rock, a book of new stories, and Carried Away, an Everyman's Library selection of older ones, suggests that Ms Munro's fame may have reached its apogee.

There's no doubt that one of these days some contrarian punk of a critic will chase a bit of momentary glory by arguing that Munro is overrated, but that critic won't be me. The first task in executing such a takedown would be locating a Munro sentence that was sloppy, dishonest, unnecessary or dull. The chances are roughly equal to those of finding a mango tree bearing fruit in a field in western Ontario in the middle of winter. If there were such a tree, in any case, Munro would already have found it, and would moreover know who planted it and with what eminently sensible, or crazily impractical, purpose in mind.

Jeff Turrentine gives The Lives of Rocks, Rick Bass's new collection of stories, a glowing review.

In 20 books, many of them nonfiction, Bass has earned a reputation as a passionate, poetic advocate for sound environmental stewardship. But this collection is a reminder that in addition to being a tireless voice for wildlife and forests, he's also one of this country's most sensitive and intelligent short-story writers, adept at capturing people during those moments when they first realize they are indeed component parts of complex organic systems: parts of nature.

As for the novels, Kevin Baker gives Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams a heartily good review. Of this first novel, about the Irish potato famine and its consequences, Mr Baker writes, "If Behrens's story is plausible, it is because it is harsh, but if his story is harsh his writing is seamless, and often gorgeous." Uzodinma Iweala is a bit harder on Yvette Christiansë's Unconfessed, another historical novel, this one about an incarcerated South African former slave.

 Rather than locking us in Sila's world, the half-step toward insanity bars us from gaining access to her emotional core. As a result, we remain distant, unable truly to feel Sila's destabilizing sadness and rage. She becomes merely an object of pity.


In his review of The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia, by Guy Lawson and William Oldham, Bryan Burrough passes up the chance to indulge in entertaining storytelling in order to write a solid review. Instead of talking at length about the exploits of Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, retired cops who remain in prison despite vacated convictions, Mr Burrough analyses the apparently ill-digested report that Mr Lawson, a crime reporter, and Mr Oldham, a detective "who helped break the case," have given us.

One suspects that within this overstuffed, ultradense 511-page anvil is a lean, nimble, 275-page claw hammer yearning to swing free, a sequel to breezy underworld page-turners like Howard Blum's Gangland. It's not just that Lawson and Oldham throw in the kitchen sink. Like Gambino soldiers gleefully raiding a Canarsie warehouse, they haul out a refrigerator, 18 microwave ovens, 82 dinette sets, 994 Viking ranges and, still feeling a tad light, the entire inventory of the New Jersey Turnpike Ikea.

Jim Holt is rather impatient with Alain de Botton's The Architecture of Happiness, and he doesn't spend much time talking about it. "Like de Botton's previous books, this one contains its quota of piffle dressed up in pompous language." Isaac Chotiner is hardly more sympathetic to The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey Into the Disturbing World of James Bond, by Simon Winder.

Bond fans can (and do) debate these particulars endlessly, but it would have been useful to get more insight into what now seems the most relevant question regarding Bond: why do millions of people, many of whose homelands were once British colonies, still love to watch a British spy save the world?

Claire Messud might have been somewhat more scrupulous about storytelling in her review of Leonard Woolf: A Biography, by Victoria Glendinning, but she praises the book as "comprehensive and eminently readable." The difficulty of reviewing a biography is the burden of "selling" the subject to readers. It doesn't matter how well Ms Glendinning writes if Leonard Woolf was essentially a stick. Ms Messud shows that he was not a stick, but storytelling obscures her sources: how much of this did she know before she picked up Glendinning's book? .

Edward Lewine clearly wants to think more highly of The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town. He calls John Grisham "a major talent." But:

In The Innocent Man, however, he has shackled himself to facts that are less intriguing than he imagines, and he fails to use his creative gifts to help matters along.


Instead, he never gets the plot up to a decent boil. Rather than focusing tightly on Williamson, he meanders through Fritz's trial and yet a third murder case, whose details are instructive but not enough to merit the damage all this digressing does to the book's forward motion. With so many crimes and trials, the cast swells to an unhealthy number, and few of these characters emerge as fully drawn people.

Alexandra Fuller is full of praise for Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's The Old Way: A Story of the First People, pointing out that while the book is primarily an account of the forced resettlement of the Kalahari Bushmen in the 1970s, it is "also a reminder that we ignore our biology and our environment at our peril."

It's possible to readd this by turns heart-breaking and gorgeously observed book without feeling the weight of Thomas's scholarship. The Old Way is not only a timely work, but also a timeless one - a last look back before we decide how to go forward.

Josef Joffe notes that James Traub, author of The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power was given extraordinary access to his subject, and writes almost as much about the former as he does the latter.

Traub, always the dispassionate analyst, neither condemns not condones. His is a melancholy tale, beautifully written and meticulously researched - about a hero who was not so much flawed as indecisive, whose clout could never measure up to his lofty purpose.

In Leap Days, Chornicles of a Midlife Move, Katherine Lanpher chronicles her exchange of a somewhat banal and neglected life in Minnesota for stardom on Air America in Manhattan. Eve Conant savors Ms Lanpher's ambivalence about the swap.

Lanpher's loving descriptions of Minnesota make it seems that perhaps New York was a mistake. Two years on, she still doesn't know if the move was worth it.

This leaves two inherently silly books that ought to have been beneath the Review's attention. If you think that The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness could possibly be worth reading at book length, then you illuminate my feeling of emergency. Ben Sisario assesses Steven Levy's book as "so enthusiastic it sometimes reads like an advertisement for Apple Computer." Scott Veale is somewhat more enthusiastic about The Smart Money: How the World's Best Sports Bettors Beat the Bookies Out of Millions: A Memoir, by Michael Konik, but toward the end of the review he predicts that "By this point, most readers will share his disgust and exhaustion..."

In addition of Cynthia Ozick's slightly baffling encomium to Rabbi Leo Baeck, author of Romantic Religion (a book that she claims had a transformative effect on her life), there is Rachel Donadio's Profile of Helen Vendler, the doyenne of poetry in America. Among other interesting details, the Profile reveals that Ms Vendler was all but Minister for Poetry at the Book Review in the Sixties and Seventies. Now 73, Ms Vendler remains a great authority, but she "seldom reviews poets under 50, since their 'frames of reference' ... are alien to her."


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