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In the Book Review

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

The reviews this week were largely responsible, and the books covered deserving. There was one book that I had already purchased, on the strength of the cover story, by the time I read the second review. As of this writing, I've read the first four of the eight stories in Mothers and Sons, and I have to take issue with the judgment of reviewer Pico Iyer, that Colm Tóibín is "more interested in emotion than in action or community." I see quite the opposite, at least so far.  Mr Tóibín's characters seem determined to keep emotion - unruly emotion, at any rate, at bay, and community nosiness bothers them far too much to allow the writer's interest in community to be deprecated. 

Fiction & Poetry

Keith Waldrop's new prose translation of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, The Flowers of Evil, gets a favorable review from Joshua Clover. One might have wished for the translation of one complete poem; instead, Mr Clover gives us a crash course in the whirlwind of mid-nineteenth-century Parisian culture. Considering its irrelevance to a prose translation, Baudelaire's strictly conventional meter gets more attention in this review that seems warranted. It is, as always, jarring to be reminded that the first of the Moderns died in 1867.

The cover story is Pico Iyer's thoughtfully enthusiastic review of Mothers and Sons, Colm Tóibín's new collection of short stories. Here's the paragraph that sold me:

Yet the very continuity of tone and theme - even of lighting - that Tóibín sustains across many worlds is part of what makes this book less a collection of pieces than an organic whole. We meet a woman with a drinking problem and then, when we meet another with the same problem, eight stories later, each makes the other richer. The sudden explosion of gay desire that comes out in one piece haunts the simmering of the same impulse two stories later. When Tóibín introduces us to a "great emptiness" in the first, six-word sentence of the book, the word "emptiness" tolls with mounting force as it recurs throughout the story. And then we feel something like epiphany when it comes back with new resonance in the second half of the final piece.

Throughout his review of Tyler Knox's Kockroach, Matt Weiland struggles with the ghost of Kafka, the famous author of a famous story that Mr Knox has undertaken to invert. (A cockroach wakes up as a human, and, not only that, but in Times Square in the Fifties.) Surrender is inevitable.

In the end Knox has less in common with Kafka that with sharp young comic novelists like Chris Bachelder and Lydia Millet who work in the wide shadow of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, George Saunders's stories and The Simpsons.

And guess what. "Knox isn't as funny or fine a writer as Bachelder or Millet, nor as acute in his criticism."

Madison Smartt Bell's sketch of the plot of Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name left me wondering if I'd find the book interesting or just odd. "Finally we understand that Clarissa's mother is acting out a refusal to be a victim of her history." What, in terms of a novel, can this mean? Terence Rafferty is similarly bewildering about Hannibal Rising, Thomas Harris's "pre-quel" to certain well-known horror stories (and due to open next month as a major motion picture!).

What this young-cannibal story describes is a process by which desire is reduced to mere appetite, and it suggests, provocatively, that the function of taste is simply to make that desire-free appetite a little more interesting. That's a sad thought.

I'm sorry, but trying to process "desire-free apetite" has brought down my motherboard. In contrast to the foregoing, Andrew O'Hehir's review of Tales of the Out & the Gone, by Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) stimulated my curiosity about the famously rebarbative writer.

Baraka is a poet down to his bones, and the wildly uneven stories of Tales of the Out & the Gone, which veer from broad, Pyncheonesque satire to pointed science-fiction parable to jazz-infused Joycean linguistic games, are unmistakably poet's prose. One might be tempted to argue that Baraka lacks the skills required to write conventional, magazine-style short fiction, but as he demonstrates in the erotic horror story "Norman's Date" (published in Playboy, of all places, in 1983), that simply isn't true. He writes crisp, punchy sentences and has a fine ear for dialogue, particularly of the masculine, in-joke variety. He just can't be bothered, most of the time, with beginnings and endings. Reading Baraka's fiction is all about enjoying the journey, and never mind the destination.

Finally, there is Todd Pruzan's Fiction Chronicle.

Alligator, by Lisa Moore. "It's hard to think of a more uncomfortable pleasure - or maybe a more pleasing discomfort - than good, strong black comedy."

Not Enough Indians, by Harry Shearer. "Yet Shearer's onscreen poker face belies his insecurity as a storyteller; on the page, he flails for endless rimshots."

Third Class Superhero, by Charles Yu. "More often Yu maintains a cool, disrespectful distance from the worlds he creates, writing in such tediously clever formats as mathematical problems and disjointed field notes."

The Blue Taxi, by N S Köenings. "The Blue Taxi spins with the languor of a dusty ceiling fan: nobody in [the fictional East African town of] Vunjamguu is in a hurry to conduct their daily lives, much less to resolve their mounting tensions. Köenings examines the minutiae of her endearingly flawed characters in slow motion and at high, exacting resolution."

Newsworld, by Todd James Pierce. "We're clearly in George Saunders territory here, and Pierce's stories suffer in comparison. What separates Newsworld from Saunders's wicked absurdism, though, is its abundance of sympathy."


Steve Coates makes it clear, in his review of new biographies of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew, Augustus, that he regards the dissolution of the Roman Republic as a Good Thing. He judges military historian Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus to be "an authoritative and exciting protrait not only of Caesar but of the complex society in which he lived." Anthony Everitt, author of Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor, "is clearly not as steeped in classical studies as his fellow Briton Goldsworthy."

Try as he might, Everitt fails to give the emperor an appealing face, or even a convincingly human one. His truly sympathetic figures turn out to be those who were in some way victims, either of Augustus himself or of his new dispensation.

(It would seem that Mr Coates didn't hear A N Wilson call Augustus the Widmerpool of classical antiquity.) At the other end of the seriousness scale - even if one of the figures is ultimately decapitated - is A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings, by Stella Tillyard. Stacy Schiff's review is a piece of unadulterated storytelling, devoting only one paragraph in a full-age review to the quality of Ms Tillyard's account - which she finds, at times, to be "inert."

Gary Rosen's review of Modern Liberty: And the Limits of Government, by Charles Fried, notes that Mr Fried is more libertarian than conservative - and more humane than libertarian.

More interesting, because less predictable, is Fried's discussion of property. In echoes of Rawls, the great philosophical advocate of welfare-style redistribution, he concedes that many epople, for reasons largely beyond their control, lack the most basic material resources. "Humiliated" and "dependent," they deserve public support, Fried believes, in the name of their unrealized individuality.

This is perhaps the best piece in a generally good issue: Mr Rosen is fully engaged with Mr Fried's book and undistracted by axes of his own.

Robert Leiter's brief reivew of The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World, by Kati Marton, claims that the book "deserves a special place on bookshelves alongside Budapest 1900, by the much undervalued historian John Lukacs." Mr Leiter is nevertheless uncomfortable with the conferring of "world changing" status to photographers and filmmakers  - at least in the company of physicists.

Caleb Crain storytells his way through a review of Emma Lazarus, by Esther Schor, generally oblivious of the actual book. The piece is chock full of historical goodies: Lazarus's father was a wealthy sugar merchant, and he came from a family that had been in the United States since before the Revolution. Lazarus's best known poem, "The New Colossus," was not read at ceremonial unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, and in fact was forgotten until the 1930s, when many people just have thought that Lazarus herself was yet another immigrant hailing the Statue from the decks of a liner. Mr Crain pauses now and then to suggest that Ms Schor is overly ambitious on behalf of her subject.

This week's other biography, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins, by Amanda Vaill, is reviewed by John Rockwell - along with two existing books, by Deborah Jowitt and Greg Lawrence. No storytelling here! Mr Rockwell, if pressed, would probably recommend Ms Jowitt's book over the other two, but he very gentlemanly suggests that dance aficionados will want all three.

Robbins lived in a world of like-minded collaborators, most his age and Jewish and New Yorkers and leftist and, among the men, gay. Being any of those things in a straight, WASP-y, cynically patriotic world posed its own strains, and Vaill's wealth of anecdotes illuminates that world, its shining moments and darker corners.

Anthony Julius, the English solicitor-advocate polymath with a sideline in art, appears to be sympathetic to the views of critic and New Criterion founder Hilton Kramer, at least so far as dismissing post-modernism goes. Mr Kramer's The Triumph of Modernism: The Art World 1987-2005 seems to be saddled with a paradox in its title, unless he means that modernism has triumphed in the pages of his journal. (The dates mark the span of years within which the essays in the book were initially published.) There is a bit of knuckle-rapping toward the end of the piece, however. "In this book there are perhaps too many 'easy, unargued assumptions' (for example, in Kramer's criticism of the work of the art historian T J Clark.)"

There are two famous boomer albums at the center of books this week: Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones, by Robert Greenfield; and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek and the Dominos, by Jan Reid. Alan Light's review makes it plain that both books are upholstered with personal gossip but musically rather threadbare. Boxing fans would doubtless look for Budd Schulberg's pre-posthumous Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage whether reviewer Gordon Marino liked the book or not. Mr Marino, apparently assuming that Mr Schulberg's work needs no introduction, begins his piece of storytelling by lamenting the passage of boxing writers from the popular press.

Gary Wills continues to insist that he is a Catholic, but with What Paul Meant, in which he claims that both Jesus and Paul were killed by religion, he steps closer and closer to an almost-anabaptist reformed church. Relying on current Biblical scholarship, which holds that Paul's epistles predate all of the Gospels, Mr Wills uses Paul to sketch a faith that is less doctrinal and more improvised than anything the Vatican is likely to countenance anytime soon. Theocon-turncoat Damon Linker hails Mr Wills as "one of the most intellectually interesting and doctrinally heterodox Christians writing today."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Bio Hazard," explores the icky-poo relations of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer and Ronald Suresh Roberts, her erstwhile authorized biographer.


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