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In the Book Review

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

This was a tough week. Only one novel made it into Yes, and I've doubts that it deserved the placement. I used the word "crap" for the first time, because, Jesus, Erica Wagner really deserves it. With the worldwide democratic electorate proving itself incompetent on every side, it's no help to read her stupidly self-indulgent reviews of barely passable books. I would have put Hunk City among the Maybes (at best), but I needed some good fiction. I have no idea where the editors found this week's titles. Under a bridge somewhere, I expect.


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

Hunk City, by James Wilcox. Mark Sarvas, author of the blog The Elegant Variation, gives this novel a good review that I can't quite understand, but I catch its enthusiasm. There's a lot of storytelling, and I can't tell whether the book is a romp or a memorable novel. Mr Sarvas inclines me to give it the benefit of the doubt.

As in his prior novels, Wilcox's narrative, which skitters like a stone thrown expertly across a country pond, delivers a high quotient of whimsy...

Easter Everywhere: A Memoir, by Darcey Steinke. I didsn't much care for Stephen Metcalf's exhaling review. I was also unhappy with the photograph of the author, who bears an elaborate, flaming tatoo on her right shoulder (I am against tatoos, largely because, yes, indeedy, they're "cute"). But the review makes it clear that, as a book about the possibility that adult unhappiness may be attributable more to the lack of reasonable authorities in life than to childhood dysfunction, Easter Everywhere may be a pivotal memoir. And yet I did find dysfunction in Ms Steinke's story, even if she's not exploiting it. The daughter of a lukewarm Lutheran minister more interested in the poor (and jazz) than in "theodicy,"  and "a former provincial beauty queen who attached too early to the local minister's son," Ms Steinke is clearly the product of a mésalliance. I wish her luck with the tatoo.

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance, by Atul Gawande. Paulene Chen (herself also a physician), is enthusiastic about this book, which might have been given more space. "Gawande, a surgeon, manages to capture medecine in all of its complex and chaotic glory, and to put it, still squirming with life, down on the page."

Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World, by Liza Mundy. Polly Morrice has her reservations about this report on the latest in fertility enhancement, but she is clear that the field needs Federal regulation.

[Mundy] suggests that the government should limit how many embryos can be transferred - indeed, that it should finally start regulating the free-for-all fertility industry, which is now so unfettered that companies producing the sugar-and-protein soup that nurtures human embryos aren't required to divulge its ingredients. State oversight would also promote controlled studies of what reproductive science has wrought, perhaps resolving the question of whether in vitro babies are different in unwelcome ways from infants created naturally. Such issues certainly deserve our attention, whether or not they are really the results of a revolution.


The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, by William Dalrymple. Tobin Harshaw indulges in a great deal of storytelling in his negligently favorable review of this book about the last non-British ruler of India before 1947. He does manage to engage with the book for an instant.

Dalrymple excels at bringing grand historical events within contemporary understanding by documenting the way people went about their lives amidst the maelstrom [of the Mutiny]. His coup in researching The Last Mughal was his uncovering, deep in the National Archives of India, some 20,000 personal personal Persian and Urdu papers written by Delhi residents who survived the uprising.

The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet, by Kate Teltscher. This book, about Warren Hasting's attempt to open up the China market via a Tibetan back door, gets a favorable review from Tristram Stuart. He shows how the author's thinking has evolved since a 1995 book about India that was heavily influenced by the anticolonialism of Edward Said. "Even while working for an unjust colonial machine, many individuals fostered similarly paradoxical relationships that became the channels for mutual cultural exchange." Fat lot of good it did, though: China would be "opened" not by diplomacy but by the Opium Wars.

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben. Lance Morrow writes a favorable review of this book even while he contests its efficacy. Sure, we can all pitch in on the environmental effot. But

To attempt to alter the world by increments of local improvisation and conservation is to fight against a mighty tide. The world is flat, all right. It is also a toxic mess. Minds are usually changed on a mass scale only by some dramatic event - Pearl Harbor, say: Americans, isolations before Dec 7, 1941, pitched wholeheartedly into the war thereafter.... Right now, with the tsunami, Katrina, global melting, the world is cruising along - somewhere around Munich and Czechoslovakia. 


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

Way More West: New and Selected Poems, by Edward Dorn. Ordinarily, poets get a Yes pass from me. But poet August Kleinzahler's review seems inverted.

But that's Dorn. Throughout his career, he was the least endearing, domesticated or predictable of poets, always determined to go his own way, no matter what anyone thought. And if he hadn't been that way, American poetry would be a lot less vital and interesting.

That's the sort of thing we're always being told about difficult writers, but Mr Kleinzahler ought to have set out to prove his thesis, instead of ending an inconclusive review with it.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid. I can't make head nor tail of Karen Olsson's review. It is almost entirely storytelling - summarizing the plot of the novel - and wholly lacking in judgment.

The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tell him the story of his life after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid's elegant and chilling little novel.

This paragraph, which I have quoted entire, ought to be engraved in the Enchiridion of Book Reviews: How Not To.

Black & White, by Dani Shapiro. Erica Wagner ought to stick to writing novels. She makes a complete hash of reviewing Black & White, largely because she's so taken with her own literary-arity. This is how she begins:

To whom does a novel belong? There is is - an object of a certain size, shape and weight, its title, its author's name on the cover. So there can be, you would think, little doubt. Black & White, this one says, "a novel by Dani Shapiro." So this novel belongs to, is made by, Dani Shapiro. So far, so good [sic!!!!!]. But when I read Shapiro's words, she is not with me. I have only her words, black marks on white pages, thought in this novel her title should be taken to refer, of course, to the photographic images that have made its protagonist a celebrity, albeit an unwilling one. But art exists just as much in the mind of its creator.....

Good heavens, woman, whither thou goest? There may be a venue for this sort of self-celebratory crap, but the Book Review is not it.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall. This novel has been the object of much recent buzz - so much so, in fact, that I now find myself in the middle of reading it. Misgivings sprouting like mushrooms, I read Tom Shone's review with inordinate interest. It is very negative.

How all of this will read in 20 years, or even two, is hard to say, although one suspects that what seemed so vertiginously modern will ultimately seem like so much cyber-age psychedelia - as depthless and woozy as paisley-patterned shirts. Hollywood, needless to say, has taken the bait... But I would advise producers to tread cautiously: we could be in for a replay of The Beach, by Alex Garland. Novels so in hock to the movies have a habit of evaporating by the time they get to the screen.

Unfortunately, none of this disposes of Mr Hall's novel.

Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead. Roy Hoffman's column-length review of what is clearly a complex Civil War novel fails to do justice not so much to the book as to the job of reviewing. Mr Hoffman is ultimately dissatisfied with the book, but I'm pretty dissatisfied with his review.

A callow youth, a mystical horse, a Civil War landscape - Robert Olmstead uses these familiar elements to fashion Coal Black Horse, an exciting if periodically overwrought coming-of-age novel. They are all brought together at Gettysburg...

The review goes downhill from there.

Boomsday, by Christopher Buckley. Jane and Michael Stern, of all people, have "harrumph!" to say about this book, in which ageing boomers are offered "incentives" to "transition" (ie commit suicide in order to spare the health system the expense of caring for them.).

As in so many of the feature length films based on SNL skits, the caricature that is comical in small doses gets stale fast. Perhaps you find it amusing that the billionaire's motor boat appears on the cover of a publication called Vulgar Yacht Quarterly and his sailboat is named Expensive, but page after page of such cloddish comedy can be wearying. Then again, maybe we missed the obscure irony in lines like "When the going gets tough, the touch get blogging," or "In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream."

Jane and Michael Stern, our most literate vernacularists, are improbable reviewers of Mr Buckley's mandarin humor.

The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, Edited by Stephen Pascal. A celebrity book: everyone you've ever heard of went to Leo Lerman's parties. Is that a reason to read his journals? Certainly not. Liesl Schillinger, alas, doesn't come up with anything better. Her review is dissociative at points.

For more than a decade, Pascal deciphered and edited his former mentor's journals with Foy's help and privy knowledge, and hunted down hundreds of Lerman's letters. In The Grand Surprise, Pascal resurrects and imposes order on a dazzling life in the scene-stealing language of the man who lived it. "How different writing is from thinking, even from planning what one is to write," Lerman wrote in a morose journal entry in 1978, after spending the day with Lincoln Kirstein and his wife and sister in Connecticut. He went on blackly to complain: "I balloon with words. I grow lardy with words. I am fat - hideously fat - with words." Pascal has reshaped Lerman's reminiscences into a heroic physique, and given his subject the posthumous consolation (would that he could have known it) that a hope he confided to himself late in life, in a notebook he did not know would be found, was true: "I did do something extra. I lived. I will live."

If we're supposed to applaud Mr Pascal's transformation of his subject into Auntie Mame, then please say so.

The Lady Upstairs: Dorothy Schiff and The New York Post, by Marilyn Nissenson. This ought to have been a Yes, but Jennifer Senior's review is persistently negative. She applauds the author for thorough research but faults her for a reluctance to pause and synthesize. In short: a dizzy and dizzying book. There is naturally a great deal of storytelling in this review of a biography of Katharine Graham's feistier sister.

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, by Simon Rich. Henry Alford's review makes Simon Rich, the son of Times pundit Frank Rich (whom I admire no end), sound a bit on the idle side, for all his endearing good humor.

The microscaled, high-concept humor piece seems to be in vogue with all the cool kids... You'd think that a current Harvard senior and former president of The Harvard Lampoon might serve up a hipper-than-thou shivaree of pop culture or highbrow allusions. But aside from the occasional nod to the Bible or a movie... Some of them could have been written 50 years ago.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Gregg Easterbrook's review is a textbook example of the narcissism of small differences. Mr Easterbrook clearly shares Mr Taleb's interest in the frailty of predictions (the books title refers to the kinds of unexpected developments that we don't foresee.) Having said that The Black Swan "has appealing cheek and admirable ambition," Mr Easterbrook proceeds to pick at it in a niggling sort of way, so that in the end you wonder what Mr Taleb's publishers were thinking. It would have served everyone better to suggest why Random House - Mr Taleb's publisher - must have decided that it had a good title on its hands.


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

Mergers & Acquisitions, by Dana Vachon. I find that I want to know more at the same time that I want to know nothing about this book, which appears to be an enormous moon of nostalgia for a decade that the author spent in his crib. D T Max is almost savage.

Quinn and his father shop at Brooks Brothers and he and his friends eat at Smith & Wollensky and Le Bilboquet. They do cocaine in bathrooms as if the world stopped in 1983. They talk on Motorola Razrs when the guys selling fake watches on Fifth have them. Socially the '00s may be the '80s all over again, but even so, no book purporting to bring us cultural news should be set in an M&A division in 2007.

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston. This is a book about people who love and must conduct their lives atop Sequoia Sempervirens. It is a niche book if ever there was one. Kate Zernike gallantly tries to give it some general relevance, but when she writes,

Oddly, in a book of vivid characters, Sillett, the protagonist, is the least vivid

the game is up.

Positively American: Winning Back the Middle Class Majority One Family at a Time, by Chuck Schumer, with Daniel Squadron; ...And I Haven't Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress, by Charles B Rangel with Leon Wynter. These two Chuck-lheads are important figures in my part of the world, and, on the whole, I admire their political achievement. Why on earth I or anyone else would want to read their personal testaments, however, is beyond me. Eric Alterman praises Mr Rangel's prose and damns Mr Schumer's, but aside from stylistic differences the books don't seem that different. These men are actors, not thinkers; it's for others to judge and analyse their actions.


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