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In the Book Review

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

Dr Jerome Groopman is everywhere these days, even writing this week's Essay, "Prescribed Reading." Dr Groopman teaches a literature class to undergraduates at Harvard College, and the syllabus includes a number of books that, in the doctor's view, have strong Biblical resonances. The astounding final sentence of the final paragraph is really very depressing, although Dr Groopman certainly didn't intend it to be so.

Some of the students will go on and become doctors, others journalists and teachers, mathematicians and financiers. All will one day be patients. They will then consult clinical textbooks or the Internet to learn about their disease, and some may also turn to self-help books. But it is in literature that they will find the sharpest revelations about the dilemmas of physicians and the yearnings of a patient's soul. And, for believer and atheist alike, the Bible should be a book to turn to.

If there's one thing I have no use for, it's the wisdom the ages in general and the wisdom of the Bible - a very nasty book - in particular. See God Is Not Great, below.


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

The Yiddish Policeman's Union, by Michael Chabon. Terrence Rafferty's enthusiastic review keeps the storytelling under control while writing extensively about the novel's literary qualities. About the novelist, he writes,

He has in recent years become a zealous proselytizer for a more genre-inflected and plot-friendly sort of literary fiction, a rabbi of the sect of Story. I think, though, that for him plot is like chess, no more and no less that a beautiful game, something to be played as scrupulously and passionately as you can, but warily - with an eye to the danger that the game could start playing you. When that happens, and you find yourself in that forced-to-move trap, the sensible thing is to knock the board over.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens. Michael Kinsley, declaring his own non-believer status, praises this book for its passion as well as for its lucidity. "He has written, with tremendous brio and great wit, but also with an underlying genuine anger, an all-out attack on all aspects of religion." Marveling that Mr Hitchens's rightward drift has not culminated in his being born again, Mr Kinsley concludes.

Speaking of foxes, Hitchens has outfoxed the Hitchens watchers by writing a serious and deeply felt book, totally consistent with his beliefs of a lifetime. And God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him as an adult.

Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by Cullen Murphy. Walter Isaacson praises this bold attempt to scare Americans into acting sensibly. Whether the book will be read by the Americans who need scaring is open to question, as Mr Isaacson indirectly suggests. 

Occasionally Murphy seems to overstretch his analogies or to treat America as if it were a society as distant and curious as ancient Rome. His erudite book occasionally feels like something written from the aloof perch of the Boston Athenaeum Library, which it indeed was, rather than from firsthand observations of a Rotary Club meeting in the Midwest or an American Army base in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Murphy's arguments, even when they fail to be convincing, are thought-provoking.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul, by John Stubbs. Thomas Mallon calls this book a "vivid new biography" in his second paragraph and then pretty much forgets about the book until the final paragraph, telling instead the interesting story of John Donne's career. What he does say about the book seems helpful.

[Stubbs] sets a lively, plausible scene and sustains a high level of exactitude and style in his phrasing. His book has juice and, best of all, a kind of fearlessness in approaching the "frequently convoluted" emotions of a poet who possessed, if not English literature's greatest imagination, quite possibly its greatest intellect.


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

Some of Tim's Stories, by S E Hinton. Stephanie Zacharek's review has me stumped. Take this passage, for example:

In a series of interviews that make up the second half of the book, Hinton explains that the "Tim" of the title is the writer of these stories. "Mike" is Tim's thinly disguised alter ego, a guy who can't stop punishing himself for the ways in which he might have failed his cousin. 

What is meant by "the second half of the book"? Are the interviews fictional? How might "Mike" have failed his cousin? Ms Zacharek gets lost in a long view of Ms Hinton's career, and if it weren't for the fact that "Mike" is a bartender, one might even wonder if this book is aimed at the younger people who are Ms Hinton's customary readers.

The Big Girls, by Suzanna Moore. Stacey D'Erasmo's review gets off to a bad start with the claim that "The women-in-prison genre, even at its most blatantly exploitative, can't escape the political." It is very hard to get a sense of Ms Moore's fiction within the review's social-problem orientation.

Imposture, by Benjamin Markovits. Jess Row writes somewhat condescendingly about this historical novel, which centers on a doctor who "passes" for Lord Byron. Mr Row is unexcited by the novel's treatment of the alter ego, and writes, "It captures the morbidity of Polidori's fascination with Byron but not the thrill of being in the poet's presence, which is like reading Kurt Cobain's diaries without ever having heard the first four chords of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'."

Angelica, by Arthur Phillips. Andrew Sean Greer's review begins by labeling this novel a "pastiche." He doesn't say what he means by that, however, and unless he means to be a synonym for hommage or imitation, he's got me stumped. All I can make out is that Mr Greer's pastiche is always weaker and less arresting than whatever inspired it. To this muddle he adds some garbled storytelling. It's as though he couldn't tell whether his review ought to be longer or very much shorter. Mr Phillips deserves better.

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine; illustrated by Leanne Shapton. Liesl Schillinger seems to like this book, which would appear to be largely about pet dogs, but she refers rather fatally to its "paper-doll characters." Noting that Ms Schine's previous fiction has been anchored on strong central characters, Ms Schillinger writes,

But here, her characters - with the exception of a brother and sister who share an apartment - are an unconnected group of people who have been nudged into a herd by one another's pets, and are striking chiefly in their unremarkableness. Not particularly good at playing with others, they are socialized by four-footed companions that serve as fairy godmothers to these contemporary Cinderellas, who may not clean up too well but still deliver a fair shake.

Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott. Christopher Benfey writes favorably, overall, about this "mesmerizing first novel," but he pretty much nullifies his prase by calling it "upscale pulp" and making references to The Da Vinci Code.

How I Became A Nun, by César Aira (translated by Chris Andrews). I'm still scratching my head over Jascha Joffman's review, which states that the principal character in this Argentinean novel is a six year-old girl trapped in the body of a boy, also named César Aira.

On another level, though, César's ambitious delusions seem imposed by the author. Despite Chris Andrews's clear translation, Aira's prose seems hesitant, his imaginative flights clipped by the 6-year-old mind he is trying to inhabit. As a result, these perplexing episodes don't quite add up to a credible story.

A Handbook to Luck, by Cristina García. This book about three alienated characters in different parts of the world strikes Louisa Thomas as "jarring" and, evidently, uneven. Ms Thomas's storytelling only adds to the confusion.

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, by Rebecca Mead. Jodi Kantor believes that Ms Mead has gotten carried away.

Though she speaks of the entire wedding industry, Mead actually doesn't seem interested in celebrations like mine - which was on the tasteful side, if I do say so myself. Mead is so outraged by the gilded picture presented by bridal magazines that she overcorrects and gives us a book full of tawdry, tacky affairs, where the dresses are ill-fitting, the officiant is a hired gun, and the couple flushes away more than they can afford. ... In other words, Mead has reduced the American wedding to its cheesiest and most venal elements, and then written a book about how cheesy and venal American weddings are.

Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors, by Lisa Alther. Katherine Dieckman's review is notably unsympathetic. Of Ms Alther's genealogical effort, she writes,

This should be fascinating, but Alther is too besotted with the vagaries of her own experience, and her attempts at cleverness fall flat. Her frequent readings from outdoor church signs ("Come On In and Join Out Prophet-Sharing Plan") grow as wearisome as her antsy digressions. Occasionally there's the verve of her earlier prose, but clunkers abound. "This project, undertaken with such enthusiasm, is proving as never-ending as Cher's farewell tour.

(More about Melungeons here.)

East Wind Melts the Ice: a Memoir Through the Seasons, by Lisa Dalby. Dana Goodyear's review makes it difficult to imagine why anybody would want to read this book.

As a writer, Dalby makes similarly improbable and attention-getting choices. "I would rather skin a dead raccoon than shove a sharp hook up the anus of a pitifully thrashing Lumbricus terrestris," she writes, when what she means to communicate is that she dislikes using worms when she's fishing.

Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, by Robert Dallek. Mark Atwood Lawrence writes generally favorably about this doorstopper, but in one paragraph suggests to me that I'd do best not to add it to my pile.

Dallek's attention to personalities makes Nixon and Kissinger remarkably engaging for a 700-page study of policy making. But this emphasis also underlies its chief weakness: the implication that the foreign policy devised by Nixon and Kissinger lacked intellectual coherence. Curiously, Dallek fails to describe at any length the rapidly shifting geostrategic landscape that confronted the Nixon administration as it entered office in 1969 - above all, the relative decline of American power due to the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union's attainment of nuclear parity with the United States.

Put another way, this sounds like dumbed-down history, all personality and no context.


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

American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate, and Beyond, by E Howard Hunt. From the final paragraph of Tim Weiner's severe review:

E Howard Hunt's work is in a long tradition of arrant nonsense. In short, this is a book to shun. It is a small blessing that its author has been spared the burden of answering for its publication.



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Hearing all this talk of the new Chabon release makes me a little sad…

A year ago, I would have been thrilled and no doubt attended his book signing. He’s been my favorite author since I first read his debut novel THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH back in the early 90s.

But I can no longer support the work of an author who has no regard for the story and characters that put him on the literary map.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a film version of MOP coming out later this year… Written and directed by the guy who brought us DODGEBALL, in which he’s CHANGED 85% of Chabon’s original story.

And the sad part is… Michael Chabon himself APPROVED of the script! WHY would he do this? I can only think of one possible answer: $$

If you are a Chabon fan, esp MOP, I suggest you do NOT see this movie. You will be sadly disappointed at the COMPLETE removal of the gay character, Arthur Lecomte, and the fabrication of a romantic love triangle between Art Bechstein, Jane Bellwether, and a bi-sexual Cleveland Arning. And really, what is MOP without the presence of Phlox Lombardi? Alas, she’s barely in it.

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