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In the Book Review

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

There are many doubtful books this week, which is not surprising, given the streak of oddball topics that runs through the issue. I'd have put several of the Maybes in with the Noes, but people might think I was stuck up. There are two or three books that I'd have put in with the Yeses, but the reviews weren't strong enough. Dispiriting, overall.

I almost bought Then We Came to the End a couple of weeks ago, when I was loitering at the Hunter College branch of Shakespeare & Co. The opening pages read very well. But my backlog of unread books didn't permit my venturing a novel about which I'd heard, at that point, precisely nothing. Of course I'll get it now.


The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. James Poniewozik gives this novel about paranoid cubicals in the spasms of late-stage corporatocracy a review that's as good as it is favorable. He tells us bits and pieces of the story, but for the most part he looks at Mr Ferris's writing, which is, of course, the issue with any major novel.

Ferris, who once worked at a Chicago ad agency, is fluent in the language of white-collar wordsmiths under siege. His characters even concoct their own vocabulary for the layoff process. Being fired becomes "walking Spanish down the hall," a phrase with origins in pirate days borrowed from a Tom Waits song about an execution.

Surveillance, by Jonathan Raban. The other worthy novel in this week's issue also seems to focus on American malaise. Bob Shacochis's passable review suggests that Surveillance is a novel of ideas, but he adds, "The characters also bloom into their bodies, lives and loves." Because he does not describe this blooming, however, we have to take it on faith.

Biography: A Brief History, by Nigel Hamilton. Scott Stossel manages, in the course of a glib and condescending review, to convey the impression that this book is worth reading. The review is a tissue of storytelling; whether Mr Stossel is an expert in the history of biography or is merely cribbing from Mr Hamilton's book without giving credit remains uncertain. Less uncertain is the possibility that Mr Stossel has reframed the arguments underlying the book and then faulted the author for failing to reply to them.

Still, while Hamilton is right to contend that the best biographies have a novelistic feel, the unpardonable sin - from the historian's perspective, certainly - is the failure to acknowledge the point at which knowable fact has given way to fiction. On this, Hamilton is mostly silent. Does this mean he has concluded it isn't a sin at all.

The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman. "Like other successful duos," writes James Campbell, "Wordsworth and Coleridge were temperamentally dissimilar..." He concludesthat the book

is fascinating, and might have been even more so if the author's prose had the zip of that of, say, Richard Holmes, who has covered the lives of both poets in his own Coleridge biography and other books.

What, I ask, is the point of such a lopsided comparison? "Zip"?


It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

Next Life, by Roe Armantrout. Stephen Burt gallantly sings this poet's praises, but cannot conceal what appears to be a blanketing negativity.

Armantrout's dissonant still lifes, unsettling meditations and uncomfortable domestic interiors will not suit every taste. Her poems reject almost all the consolations we expect literature to contain: they do not tell us that love (or anger) will endure, they do not say that our lives can satisfy us, and they never advise us to trust our instincts. The poems give, instead, the invention, the wit and the force of a mind that contests all assumptions as much as it can: they say that no matter how much we doubt ourselves, at least one poet has doubted us more.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. This novel, about the alternative lives that a woman might live if she leaves her husband or stays with him, has garnered a lot of attention, perhaps because its author is a fetching young woman, but more likely because Ms Shriver won the Orange Prize two years ago for We Need to Talk about Kevin. Julia Scheeres's review is characteristically unilluminating. Ms Scheeres lays out the story but does not engage with the writing except to fault it.

Shriver stumbles across provocative themes - the private erotic fantasies of long-time lovers, unplanned pregnancy in middle age, the sexuality of anger - but doesn't dwell on them long enough to enliven her characters or her story. If the book spurred one emotion in me, it was hatred for snooker.

That's quite unhelpful, really. If the characters are not "enlivened," then what's the book doing in the Review?

You Don't Love Me Yet, by Jonathan Lethem. David Kamp suspects that this novel about a rock band dates from the author's hardscrabble twenties, which he spent in California. "The band members," he writes, "are little more than thin constructs with identifying tics..."

As they say in the rock magazines, this new release is worthwhile for the Lethem completist, but perhaps not for the first time buyer.

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, by Pagan Kennedy. Mary Roach spends most of her review on telling the sad story of Laura/Michael Dillon, but she praises the author's immense tact.

If you read this book, you will not gawk or laugh at Michael Dillon.

Ms Roach claims that her favorite character is the plastic surgeon who made the sex-change operations possible, and perhaps if Ms Kennedy's book had been centered on him, it would less questionably merit its place in the Review.

Villains' Paradise: A History of Britain's Underworld, by Donald Thomas. Andrew O'Hagen gives this book a very favorable review, calling it "a thrilling and thoughtful encapsulation of a national fascination." But the few quotations do not suggest a very exciting read.

Poor People, by William T Vollmann. While Walter Kirn sees a certain documentary value in this book's reportage about poverty around the world, he questions the author's philosophical ambitions.

Poverty presents a host of challenges, but knowing it when we see it isn't one of them. Vollmann writes as if it were, though. He acts as if he were the Louis Pasteur of poverty, identifying its forms for the first time through the lens of some sociological microscope. "And so I came to wonder," he reflects during one of the philosophical interludes that undermine and dilute the stretches of portraiture, "whether one characteristic of poverty might be surrender to defeat."

Mr Kirn goes on to point out that Mr Vollmann's impoverished interlocutors attribute their condition to other causes, such as fate and guilt. What on earth is "surrender to defeat" - aside from a vaguely GOP-sounding formulation?

Waiting For Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, and Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother, by Peggy Orenstein; and Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, by Rebecca Walker. Personally, I don't know what these books are doing in the Book Review. Alexandra Jacobs isn't very impressed by Ms Orenstein's book, and she has no use at all for Ms Walker's. The latter claims that realizing that she would have to give up recreational shopping when her baby arrived "was like walking into an airplane propeller." Ms Jacobs retorts,

Not to begrudge the author such luxuries, but there was no need to make the world privy to them. Orenstein's interrogation of her own profiteering pregnancy comes across as a welcome, even necessary exposé; Walker's merely a paean to pampering.

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, by Gayle F Wald. Laura Sinagra calls this a "short, absorbing biography" of an important if unlikely progenitor of rock-'n'-roll guitar playing, a woman more famous during her lifetime as a Gospel singer. Ms Sinagra also praises the author for her "taste for the messiness and necessary creativity at the margins of American cultural life."

Thomas Hardy: The Guarded Life, by Ralph Pite. Mr Pite's book has the misfortunate to follow closely in the wake of Claire Tomalin's biography of the great novelist, and, according to reviewer Brenda Wineapple, it suffers by comparison.

But because Pite more or less confines his research to Hardy's two-volume [auto-] biograpny and his published correspondence, the result is a rather airless psychological study, undertaken without corroborating evidence.

The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, by Alec Wilkinson. Gary Kamiya's review points up the difficulty that even a New Yorker writer like Alec Wilkinson will have when writing a genuine oddball, one who, in this case, crossed the Atlantic on a raft and devised a football play "which would work only in a laboratory," not to mention many other strange resume items.

Neutrino's story screams "Tell me!" - it is ragingly picaresque, filled with larger-than-life adventures and unexpected plot twists, and its sheer weirdness is fascinating. On the other hand, there is something utterly enigmatic about Neutrino, something that resists all definitions and categories. He is not just a psychological puzzle but an epistemological one: since we have almost no knowledge of anyone like him, he goes in and out of focus.


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

The Terror, by Don Simmons. Terrence Rafferty can find nothing good to say about this account of the doomed Franklin Expedition (in search of the Northwest Passage), except to praise the author's perseverance; the book is nearly eight hundred pages long.

When the Light Goes, by Larry McMurtry. According to John Leland's review, this latest installment of Texasville fiction is about Viagra and "sexual instruction videos."


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