« Le Parking | Main | Bananas »

In the Book Review

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

Another themed issue this week: "Bad For You." First you shudder, then you collect yourself and join the party. It follows that very little of the nonfiction under review is at all demanding, and the reviews are all crowd-pleasers. Smoking, drinking, dieting, and misspending one's youth are all covered. So is the Esalen Institution. I knew that Esalen was weird and narcissistic, but bad for you? How can a backrub hurt you?

The Bad-For-You theme is emblematic of the common uncertainty about popular culture that it ought to be the Book Review's job to clear up. The editors are smart, but they're hip, too. They're serious readers - about non-serious topics. Working hard to have it both ways, they're looking a little too old for hip-hop outfits.

So, get yourself a drink and nibble a few hors-d'oeuvres. Abandon all hope of literary satisfaction. Well, perhaps not all hope. There are two nice-sounding novels, and an interesting-looking book about medieval Hebrew verse. But as you contemplate the death's-head target on the cover - bone white, blood red, and nightmare black - bear in mind how utterly inconceivable this issue would have been not so very long ago - before Spy Magazine, say. Everybody's afraid of being earnest.

Starred books are deemed by the editors to fit in the "Bad For You" rubric. 


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

The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry From Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, Translated, edited and introduced by Peter Cole. Eric Ormsby is favorably impressed by this improbable book, in presents medieval Hebrew poetry, revitalized by contacts with Arabic verse in Spain, in modern English. Of a line from a vaguely homoerotic poem, "My heart is pure, but not my eyes," Mr Ormsby writes,

The sentiment may be "Platonic," as Cole claims, but there is a delicate, and very Andalusian, uncertainty to the verse; it manages to be at once chaste and erotic.

Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories, by Rebecca Barry.Danielle Trussoni links this book, which she likes very much, to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.

Although Later, at the Bar acknowledges Winesburg, Ohio in both form and tone, placing it firmly in the tradition that centers on ordinary Americans living extraordinary lives awa from the manias of the city, it also pays tribute to Anderson's saturnine sensibility.

Because A Fire Was In My Head, by Lynn Stegner. Julia Scheeres gives this book a very enthusiastic review.

How refreshing it is to have a female protagonist who is as egotistical and ruthless in her pursuit of pleasure as any of her male counterparts! The poetic detail of Stegner's sentences - not to mention her wanton protagonist - is reminiscent of the novels of John Updike. An old-fashioned wordsmith, Stegner is a writer who isn't particularly interested in postmodern gimmickry, preferring simply to concentrate on telling a good story. If there's anything to quibble with in her writing, it's that at times her description s can seem too dense, overpowering the narrative meat with a bit too much spice.

Shakespeare's Kitchen: Stories, by Lore Segal. Sue Halpern writes warmly of this "novel disguised as a book of short stories."

And so it's crucial that the book doesn't move in a straight line. The same people who are good are not good. The bad guys sometimes do decent things. The truth - surprise! - is nuanced, and so is the story, which doesn't end the way it seems to be heading.

* Send: the Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. This book really needs no review; anyone who would use it has certainly heard of it by now and may very well have a copy (I do). Whereas those who need it... Dave Barry's review is enthusiastic, which is nice, and funny, which is no surprise.

If I had read Send this would not have happened. I would have checked the address one last time, and I would have caught the error, and Mr Orifice would never have received that email from me. Although in the unlikely event that he is a reader of The New York Times Book Review, I want to state here, for the record: Sir: you are exactly what I said you are.

* Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister - A True Story of Two Turbulent Lives, by Steve Geng. Satirist Veronica Geng dies of cancer almost ten years ago. Her wastrel, addicted brother, with whom she was not on speaking terms when she died but who had adored her from childhood, has written a memoir with a difference.

Thick as Thieves does not, to Geng's credit, propound the false heroics of addiction and recovery so popular in the media these days. It just shows us how lies destroy love - no solutions, no wisdom.

* Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss - and the Myths and Realities of Dieting, by Gina Kolata. Emily Bazelon faults this book for putting too much weight on the genetic predisposition to weight gain, but remarks that it is an up-to-date survey of weight-control issues that, instead of sounding alarms about obesity, urges attentiveness and good sense.


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

Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe. The contours of the early Seventeenth-Century story about England's first successful New World colony is applied to a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Susannah Meadows writes, "The talent is there, but the story is a less than worthy cause."

*The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America, by Allan M Brandt. Jpnathan Miles believes that the only thing missing from this thick book is an attempt to understand the allure of smoking.

Yet the essential conundrum, succinctly state in a 1961 tobacco-industry memo, will remain: "There are biologically active materials present in cigarette tobacco. These are a) cancer causing; b) cancer promoting; c) poisonous; d) stimulating, pleasurable and flavorful."


*The Joy of Drinking, by Barbara Holland. Robert R Harris calls this "a carefree history of our long love affair with drinking," and his review is as "winsome" as he says Ms Holland's book is. That makes it hard to tell just how serious the fun is. One quoted sentence struck me as somewhat overheated: "In the metropolitan haunts of the highly sophisticated, the cocktail is no longer an instrument of friendship but a competitive fashion statement, or one-upsmanship." Not that I would know.

* Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, by Jeffrey J Kripal. Diane Johnson's review teeters between amusement and bemusement - but then, she actually spent a short stay at the place (with Alison Lurie - what a cackle they must have had!). Reading between the lines, I conclude that she finds this book somewhat ponderous.

It is in relation to Murphy's work and his own general thesis that Kripal may lose some readers. A history of Eesalen is one thing, but this long book also advances its own theory that Esalen and New Age culture more generally are furthering the evolution of religion in America, and perhaps worldwide, toward "no religion," by which he seems to mean not secularism so much as a sort of transcendental fusion of Eastern and other religions to the negation of all existing ones and a resolution to the Cartesian mind-body split.

* Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. Benjamin Kunkel's review makes clear why he hasn't listened to this band much lately.

But such a voice is hard to sustain in another sense: it is difficult to hold on, from year to year, to all the strength and pain of being young. It is also difficult to remain quite so completely confused. Yet there is honor in confusion - since figuring out how you feel usually means abandoning one of your truths. And the adolescent, like the artist transformed into a commodity, is right to be confused: right to want to be popular; right to be contemptuous of popularity; right to hate the faults in himself that make his popularity undeserved; and right also to hope that winning a deserved popularity might actually redeem, for a time, the entire category of the popular.

Mr Kunkel has some quibbles with this book, but he doesn't dwell on them. He's too busy writing (and writing well) about the band.

* I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, by Crystal Zevon. Tom Carson makes the case that what's wanted is not an oral biography of the late songwriter but a collection of his witty remarks.

Nonetheless, while 450 pages makes for plenty of wallowing, the gems aren't other people's insights; they're Zevon's own quips. Told that his presence added cachet to a television show, he answered "Cachet - isn't that like panache, but sitting down?"

* Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, by Jon Savage. Camille Paglia mashes up review and critique here - "critique" is one specialist's itemization of all the lapses in another's new books. As a result, when she writes that Teenage eventually "becomes compulsive reading," the likely response is, "Maybe for you, since that's your field!"

* The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, by Leslie Bennetts. It takes Eugenie Allen a while to get round to the drawback that is mentioned in every review of this book, but eventually she arrives.

More troubling - or perhaps telling - is that her sample captures a narrow spectrum. Most of the women she interviews live in the Northeast and Midwest and work (or used to work, or are married to men who work) in the fields of law, media and finance.


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

Little Pink Slips, by Sally Koslow. According to Penelope Green, this book is short on payoff, "too upbeat to be social commentary and too far from the action to work as a salacious guide to the actual Rosie sage."

* Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit, by Anthony Holden. Susan Casey is enthusiastic about this book, a revisiting of scenes covered in the author's earlier Big Deal. Still.

* The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong: A History of What Really Makes Us Happy, by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Alison McCulloch makes this out to be a deeply silly book, full of palaver about how the image of Princess Diana helps with "psychological work," and the "symbolic associational meanings" of shopping choices at the mall.

* Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, by Darren Wershler-Henry. If I read Joshua Glenn's review correctly, this book is crammed with Theory. The author regards touch-typing as a kind of imprisonment. Writing on a computer is different because "computing is a discourse whose rules are determined by the functioning of software and networks." But we were asking about typing, not computing.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


If I may say (speaking as publisher, of course), as regards Jamestown, several bloggers have already weighted on on how stupid the review of Jamestown was. And the LA Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hartford Courant, Entertainment Weekly, Metro New York, and Salon.com have all raved about it...

Post a comment

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2