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In the Book Review

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

The one book in this week's review that I'm certain to read is The Unbinding, by Walter Kirn. I don't know whether I like Mr Kirn's fiction better than his criticism; I hold both in high regard and enjoy reading them. Unlike reviewer Matt Wieland, I remember "what happens in Up in the Air." James Fenton's poetry seems worth looking into; I like Mr Fenton's criticism in The New York Review of Books, and at least the review showed me what he looks like. There ought to have been a picture of David Matthews to accompany the review of his memoir. Google him and you'll see why.

It may seem that I've dismissed the books about Pete Maravich simply because they're "about sports," but that's not so. When a review says that the most exciting thing about a book is the index of videos that one can turn to, then the book doesn't deserve a review in the Review. I will admit that Bill Elliott would have had to write an extremely good book, with plenty of general interest, in order to surmount my immense disdain for NASCAR.

Field Maloney's Essay, "Cover Stories," is not an essay at all, but an analysis of something called "the big book look" - ie, dust jackets.


Will Blythe's sympathetic review of Jim Harrison's new novel, Returning to Earth, begins cleverly, with a summary of what Mr Blythe takes to be Mr Harrison's credo. ("Welcome animals into your life.") Most of what follows is a book report that mentions but never addresses the novel's cosmology, one in which bears play a leading role. There is no attempt to measure the no-doubt considerable depth and power of Mr Harrison's writing. It's not enough for a Times reviewer to tell us that a book is worth our time.

Stephen Metcalf makes a strong case for the importance of James Fenton's Selected Poems, a surprisingly thin and inexpensive volume.

References to the shattering reality of violence abound in Fenton's poetry, but they rarely disturb its surface, itself often a peculiar combination of prosodic virtuosity and slangy, almost contemptuous nonchalance.

Matt Weiland reviews Walter Kirn's new novel, The Unbinding, with sympathy and insight.

But machinations of plot have never been the main reason to read Kirn's novels. Like his criticism, which is among the finest of any contemporary writer uncollected between hard covers, Kirn's fiction is marked by mean wit, sharp prose and clever insights into American folly.

This review will tell you whether or not The Unbinding, which began as an open-ended, heavily-hyperlinked page at Slate, is for you. Uzodinma Iweala gives Andrea Levy's Fruit of the Lemon a brief but sympathetic review.

Though Levy writes specifically about black Jamaican Britons and their struggles to be acknowledged as full members of the larger society, her novel illuminates the general situation facing all children of postcolonial immigrants across the West, from the banlieue of France to the Islamic neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

The review also praises, but declines to quote, Ms Levy's writing.

Bliss Broyard's favorable review of Ace of Spades: A Memoir assumes that I know something about David Matthews, which I don't. I take it that there's more to Mr Matthews's than being the son of a black journalist who, thanks to a "phenotypic fluke," is able to pass as a white man. Nor is there any mention of the fact that the reviewer's father, Anatole Broyard, had the same good fortune. As a meditation on race as a social construction, however, Ace of Spades would seem to be an important book.

Finally, Richard Brookhiser drily praises A J Langguth's Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, holding it up to the formidable example of Henry Adams's massive account of the war.

At 2,700 pages Adams also demands a major commitment. Union 1812 offers to give readers who are not ironmen all they want to know about America's second major war.


It's hard to tell from Alexandra Jacobs's review whether Bridie Clark's Because She Can is an edgy and absorbing entrant in the "assistant lit" subgenre - it does for Judith Regan what The Devil Wears Prada did for Anna Wintour - or a piece of trash. Ms Jacobs is not clear, although she does suggest that all the laughs are generated by one character - never a good sign.

Elizabeth Schmidt's review of Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route gave me little idea of what sort of book was under discussion. Ms Schmidt likes the book well enough, praising its scholarship as well as its writing. But she also makes it sound like an uncomfortable marriage of personal memoir (nobody in Ms Hartman's family will talk about the slavery of their ancestors), journalism (neither will present-day Ghanaians), and research (into what, I'm not sure).

By the end of her stay inn Africa, Hartman faces the fact that she hasn't found "the signpost that pointed the way to those on the opposite shore of the Atlantic."

The mission seems murky. As for Allan Shawn's Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life, you may wonder why I've placed it with the "Maybes." Surely a book by the son of longtime New Yorker and well-regarded composer must be important. James Campbell's review, however, raises a gigantic caveat.

The decision to parade the personal only to the extent that it provides insight into the medical is taken on grounds of tact, but most readers seek more from a book than self-therapy.

A book that's really just about phobia? How sad! Jay Griffith's Wild: An Elemental Journey seems to suffer from a related disorder, according to Elizabeth Royte.

... but Griffiths can be a little intense - the sort of person you might want to avoid at a cocktail party. An immersionist, she wants to let her blood course into the earth, to lie naked in the sun, to feel the tides flood her body, "inside and out." Fine, but Griffiths bracing prose is too often stoked with anger, with a hair-trigger contempt for anything that epitomizes the bridled world, including indoor sex, clean fingernails, golf ("greenery made stupid"), missionaries and the measurement of land, money or time.


According to Geoff Nicholson, Heart-Shaped Box, the debut novel by Joe Hill - Stephen King's son - isn't a very good novel. Rather, it's written by someone who "seems to know his audience" - in other words, its a brand, not a book.

The two books about the late basketball player Pete Maravich - Maravich, by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill; and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, by Mark Kriegel - are out of bounds, because for reviewer Jay Jennings, "the most exciting part of either of these books for me was in an appendix to Maravich under the 'Selected References'" section, titled 'Video'..." Heave-ho!

As for US Guys: the True and Twisted Mind of the American Man, by Charlie LeDuff, Allison Glock's ew-inspired review concludes thus:

In the end, we only learn a whole lot about the true and twisted mind of one American man. Who happens to believe he's Everyman. And it that's the case, then LeDuff help us.

No, No, No

The presence of Awesome Bill From Dawsonville: my Life in Nascar, by Bill Elliott with Chris Millard, in the pages of the Book Review would be offensive if it weren't so preposterous. Books about unusual walks of life are not self-validating; they must ground themselves in the common ground of personal reflection, not in the peculiarities of an exciting career. (This might explain why so many of the best memoirs are written by writers.) Reviewer Dana Jennings suggests that Awesome Bill has a fatal heart condition:

Saddest of all, Elliott confesses to how little pleasure he took in his long, bright career.


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