August 22, 2007

What I'm Reading

This week, I'm reading Indian. History: David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj. It's extraordinarily well-written and full of answers to questions that you didn't know you had. I had never heard of Haileybury, for example. That was the training school that the East India Company set up in 1806; it ran for about fifty years, before the merit system was introduced. Fiction: Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. This lively novel, centtered on a policeman in Mumbai, Sartaj Singh, is studded with local dialect; happily, there is a glossary. I haven't got very far. Backround: Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide, India. It's very fat, but then the usual DK guide covers a single city, not a massive subcontinent. I've also got a map of Mumbai, largely to help me navigate what I can see at Google Maps.

As for this week's Book Review:

On the Road Again.

August 15, 2007

What I'm Reading

What am I reading? That depends on which pile you look at. My official pile, on the bedside table, hasn't been touched in weeks, except to be dusted. I've got issues with every book in it. That's why they're still there, and that's why I've gone on to other things, such as Christian Jungersen's The Exception and Tessa Hadley's The Master Bedroom - both great reads. At the moment, I'm not committed to anything (excepting, of course, the difficult books on my bedside table). So I've plucked a couple of books from other piles around the house. As long as it's 15 August, I may as well read about India. Now is the time to get through Vikram Chandra's very thick Sacred Games. It's about a gangster in Mumbai, I believe. Or perhaps it's about a policeman. The other book is what might be called High Gossip: history at its most social. The book in question is David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj.

As for the this weeks Book Review:

The Boy Who Lived.

August 08, 2007

In the Book Review

I took the day off, to read Christian Jungersen's The Exception. If you can imagine a thriller set in the office of a human-rights organization - but you can't, not at least until you read this amazing novel. Marcel Theroux gave it a boost two weeks ago in the Book Review, and as you can see I couldn't wait to read it. As for writing it up, that'll be ticklish. Thrillers can difficult to cover.

Happily, there's nothing so exciting in this week's issue.

The Boy Next Door.

August 01, 2007

In the Book Review

Phew! There's nothing that I've got to have in this week's issue. I may already have a copy of Last Harvest tucked away somewhere.

It occurs to me that there's a feature that the Book Review ought to create: a survey of current paperback editions of literary classics. Each week, a different title. The only requirements would be that the author be dead and that there be at least two editions in print. When foreign or ancient classics are newly translated, they get coverage, but there's currently no way for Middlemarch to be featured. Now, that's curious, don't you think?

Samantha Power's essay, which gives this issue its title, is so concise and quietly powerful that I'm throwing you a link straight to the Times.

Our War on Terror.

July 18, 2007

In the Book Review

The most enticing book in this week's Book Review is Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Be Near Me, and I've got a copy in my shopping basket at Amazon. Other appealing titles are Shadow of the Silk Road and Island of the Lost. I was perplexed by Roy Blount Jr's review of the Library of America's new collection, American Food Writing, which I had been sure that I'd want to have. Not so much!

The Way West.


July 11, 2007

In the Book Review

There's nothing in this week's Book Review that I want to rush out and buy, but that may be because my standards have gotten defensively high: I've neither the time nor the space for the books that currently await my attention.

Christopher Hitchens appears twice, once as the rather windsocky reviewer of a book about royalty, once as "the fatuous Hitchens," in John Irving's humongo piece about Günter Grass.

For the first time, I note that most of this week's review are not available online, even as "Times Select." What's that about?

A Soldier Once.

July 04, 2007

In the Book Review

There are several really good books covered in this week's Book Review, but the one that I'm sure to get hold of is Min Jin Lee's Free Food For Millionaires, on the strength of Liesl Schillinger's excellent review. If unconstrained by space and time, I'd also read the Politkovskaya diaries, the biography of Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Collier's book about African poverty. Mildred Armstrong Kalish's memoir of growing up on a farm in Iowa looks very good, too, although it also seems strangely out of time. Elizabeth Gilbert's review makes it sound like something published in the Fifties at the latest.

Kalish is wise enough to know that the last link to the past is usually language, and rather than lament what’s been lost, she stays connected to her youthful world by using its gleeful, if outdated, lingo. (Tell me the last time you heard someone exclaim, “Not on your tintype!” or “Gosh all hemlock!”) She admits self-deprecatingly that there were certain expressions she heard spoken so often as a child that she grew up mistakenly thinking they were each a single word: “agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, adrunkenbum, demonrum and agoodwoolskirt.”

I don't know how much of that sort of thing I could take.

The Home Place.

June 27, 2007

In the Book Review

This week, I've added a much-needed page at Portico, "About this feature." The feature in question is the weekly review of the Book Review. As I approach the second anniversary of slogging through the Book Review every week and reporting on the quality of the contents, I find I've developed a few rules of the road, and at least one term of art, that are not quite self-evident. I hope that I've explained them sufficiently well. I've tried to link to the page from all the likely points of departure. 

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Star Search," is about the growing importance, faute de mieux, of the Jewish Book Network, and its annual "audition" of writers who believe that there books would be of interest to audiences at synagogues and other Jewish centers. I say "faute de mieux" because publishers are cutting back on book tours. But note this, from the Department of No Surprise: "Authors routinely say audience members seem less interested in their books than in marrying them off." Even if they're already married. 

In a Lonely Place.

June 20, 2007

In the Book Review

This week, there are four fiction titles and eight nonfiction titles. I've broken them down into six Yeses, five Maybes, and one No. Now that the Review reviews appear at Portico, where the passage of time has nothing to do with the architecture of the site, I'm giving serious thought to writing an "About What I'm Doing Here" page, in which I explain the considerations that guide me when I go through the Book Review each week. Only to the most ingenious reader is it likely to be readily apparent that I'm working in two dimensions, judging both the reviews as reviews and the merits of including the book in the Review at all. That's how it's possible for a well-written review to wind up in the Noes, and for poorly-written reviews to head the list of Yeses.

Thomas Agonistes.

June 13, 2007

In the Book Review

With this entry, my reviews of the reviews in The New York Times Book Review move to Portico. This completes the articulation of the two sites, making long entries at the Daily Blague a thing of the past, which they already were in every other respect.

The title of the review to which this weekly entry links will be taken from the cover of the issue in question. Thus "Tabloid Princess," for Caroline Weber's review of Tina Brown's The Diana Chronicles.


There are no Noes this week. And there are more than twice as many books in the Yeses than in the Maybes. And about half as many books in all, for which I'm grateful, after last week's load.

Rachel Donadio continues her "Backstage with Literature" series (my mockery) with an Essay, "Get With the Program," that's all about the hacks that geeky novelists (or novelists with geeky friends) have used to make generally available software useful for the plotting of novels. It made me wonder if Richard Powers will eventually mature into a novelist who knows how to conceal his art. Or is the science?

¶ Tabloid Princess (10 June 2007)

June 06, 2007

In the Book Review

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

It was my intention to move the Book Review review to Portico this week. And maybe I will.

As you know, The New York Times publishes books reviews daily, in its Arts Sections. These reviews, written by a handful of Times reporters, are completely independent (or appear to be) from the operation of the Book Review. This means that, in theory at least, the newspaper can disagree with itself. And that's what happened in practice when Michiko Kakutani's cluelessly unsympathetic review of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach ran in the paper a day before Jonathan Lethem's rave in the Book Review reached home-delivery subscribers.

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May 30, 2007

In the Book Review

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

There are few well-conceived reviews this week. Siddhartha Deb on Lydia Davis is about it. Frank Rich is eloquent about Falling Man, but his piece belongs on the Op-Ed page. Thomas Mallon writes very well about Juliet Nicholson's survey of England in 1911, but he storytells to distraction, and eclipses the book itself.

When I sorted the books preliminarily, Marco Pierre White's memoir was among the Yeses. Actually writing up the review, I was moved to move it to the Maybes. Yes, David Kamp likes it, and he makes it sound like a good read. But he fails to make the case that the book belongs in the Review. On the point of noting, just a moment ago, that William D Cohan's book about Lazard Frères belongs in the Business section, I realized that Mr White's book belongs in the Dining In/Dining Out section. (Imagine the following in caps: Just being a book does not destine a title to Book Review coverage. There are other places in the luxuriant spread of the Times for such notices.) That's the first time that a book has dropped from Yes to No, via Maybe, since I began organizing the Review review as I do.

If both The Lizard Cage and The Sea Lady are the magnificent novels that their reviewers claim them to be, then surely the editors ought to have provided more room. Both reviews feel jagged and peremptory, and talk too much about current affairs.

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May 23, 2007

In the Book Review

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

What's in the water? I seem to have gotten very permissive this week, with more Yeses than Maybes. Even with all the worthy subjects addressed this week, however, the editors managed to squeeze in two wholly undeserving books, one a bit of raunchy ventriloquism about Mickey Mantle, the other a "historical" action book about the move of the Knights of St John from Rhodes to Malta.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Point of Order," is about Robert's Rules of Order, which, it may interest you to know, remains copyrighted, if eminently knock-off-able. It interested me to learn that the rules are traceable back to Thomas Jefferson. Aside from the fact that they appear between covers, it's difficult to know what Robert's Rules are doing in the Book Review. What's next? Hoyle's?

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May 16, 2007

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.

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May 09, 2007

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. 

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May 02, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Lots of good books this week, including important biographies of Edith Wharton, George F Kennan, Lincoln Kirstein, and Gertrude Bell. Oh for the time to read all of them! I'm not entirely sure that I'd have bought Hermione Lee's Wharton book if I'd read Claire Messud's review first; although she's enthusiastic about the book, Messud finds an air of effort in the production, something that she rightly declares to be missing from Ms Lee's Virginia Woolf. In other words, I can no longer expect a Wharton completely refreshed from the magisterial treatment of R W B Lewis in 1976, as Ms Lee refreshed Woolf from such portraits as Quentin Bell's.

Sandor Marai's The Rebels has the air - all unread - of Major International Fiction.

Henry Alford's Essay, "Genius!", concerns "misblurbing." Yes, Virginia, there are still people who rely on blurbs. Apparently. I'm shocked, shocked to read of the fiendish things that marketers do to get boffo quotes for their dust jackets. Thank you, Mr Alford, for this TIMELY! report on a VITAL! and FASCINATING! matter.  

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April 24, 2007

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.

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April 18, 2007

In the Book Review

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

"Fiction in Translation" is this week's theme. For some crazy reason, three of the nine authors don't figure in the cover illustration; nor do their photographs appear in the "Up Front" column. Maybe they're shy.

With a cover review of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives by James Wood, the Review clearly means to aim high, but it's business as usual within this issue's pages. There are two resounding Noes, books of which their reviewers think so little that it's hard to know why they were reviewed at all. (Make that three, if you include Elfriede Jelinek's Greed.) Fiction in Spanish is preposterously overrepresented - understandable, but regrettable. A few of the books seem to have been chosen because they're weird, as in "foreign = ".

Even Mr Wood's review is far from his best work; like the rest of us who don't have literate Spanish, he's new to Bolaño and his thought has not had time to ripen.

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April 11, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Why isn't Clive James on the cover? His is probably the one book covered this week that everybody ought to buy. The Derek Walcott review is, in contrast, a quiet disaster, a snuff job really. Who is this William Logan, may I ask?

Natalie Angier's review is this week's strongest. As my uncle used to say, she knows her onions. And she knows how to assure us that David Sloan Wilson, author of Evolution for Everyone, knows his onions, too.

A few of the category calls were tough. It feels wrong, somehow, to list a volume of Derek Walcott's poetry in the Maybes, and there's much in Madison Smartt Bell's review of Erica Wagner's Seizure that suggests a work of emotional sensationalism. If you're unhappy with my final choices, feel free to reverse them. I'm probably with you.

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April 04, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Nancy Cunard was made for the cover of the Book Review as it is edited today. She was fascinating to look at, at least when she was young; she had plenty of money, at least before she went through it; and she slept with a lot of famous writers and artists, at least until she settled down with Henry Crowder, an African-American musician, and took up the cause of Negro equality (as she would have called it). She also drank herself to death. The sometime mistress of Eliot, Pound, and Beckett, she is a modernist reading man's poster girl, which may be why we get not one but three photographs of her, one by Man Ray and two by Cecil Beaton. I waited for Caroline Weber's review to unearth something truly compelling, as distinct from "interesting," about Cunard, but she seems to have been famous primarily for her demons. 

In this week's Essay, "The Genius of Grover's Corners, Jeremy McCarter praises Thornton Wilder as an underappreciated and misunderstood playwright whose work is darker than is commonly supposed.

If Wilder had moped around in black, drunk himself into oblivion or - if you're feeling romantic - hanged himself like Simon Stimson, people might not have so much trouble finding that note of radical despair amid the bathos. But like Alfred Hitchcock (for whom he wrote the unmistakably Wilderian screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt), he confounded the popular image of the genius as a tortured, self-destructive soul.

The essay is occasioned by the publication, in the Library of America, of Wilders Collected Plays & Writings on Theater.

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March 28, 2007

In the Book Review

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

What is Leni Riefenstahl doing on the cover of this week's Book Review? The same thing she always did: looking great. She was a beautiful and industrious filmmaker. These are not criteria of greatness, however. If Riefenstahl holds any interest for us today, it's in her long success at shrugging off her Nazi past - and that's not a very nice story. Riefenstahl is one of those absurdly irritating figures who thrive, even posthumously, in any kind of attention.

Erica Wagner's Essay, "Call Me, Ishmael," only half-humorously proposes that the cellular phone will drive dramatic irony from the novel.

And that's another insidious aspect of mobile telephony: its retrospective ability to make even a relatively recent novel look quaint. While it's true that the peculiar bunch of students in Donna Tartt's Secret History would never fit a common model of contemporary behavior, it's hard to believe that the murdered Bunny wouldn't have a cell, and his disappearance might be just a bit less mysterious. But the novel was published in 1992, which counts as the olden days now.

In the center of the issue, Rachel Donadio profiles book dealer Glenn Horowitz, the man behind some very rich sales of books and literary archives. The piece ends up trivializing literature by showing Mr Horowitz as just another purveyor of luxury goods.

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March 21, 2007

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.

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March 14, 2007

In the Book Review

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

On the whole, an attractive range of good books; even the iffy ones appeal in one way or another. Tony Judt's excoriation of David Burleigh's Sacred Causes suggests that there needs to be what in my kindergarten class was called the nuisance corner. Mr Burleigh would appear to be a nuisance, and it's useful to have that pointed out. Execrable books - books that ought to be avoided - could be reviewed in periodic batches, and very, very briefly. Mr Judt is a top historian and critic, he knows Mr Burleigh's field. Perhaps he could be accommodated on the Op-Ed page some Sunday.

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March 08, 2007


Don't miss this comment by author John Marks, whose Fangland was savaged by Joe Queenan in the Book Review this week.

February 28, 2007

In the Book Review

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

There are three excellent fiction review this week. Liesl Schillinger's cover story, a review of Tom McCarthy's Remainder, is a joy to read: it's just what I've been waiting for. This favorable, sympathetic review lets me know in no uncertain terms that Remainder is not a book for me! The things that she likes about the book are things that I have no patience for - and, hey, that's just me. Others will conclude that Remainder ought to be the next title on the reading list. This is how the Book Review's reviews ought to work.

There were too tough call on classification, and in both cases I erred on the side of mercy. Walter Kirn's review of David Mamet's book talks about "crackpot theories," suggesting that the newsworthiness of this particular new book by an eminent writer ought to be covered in another part of the newspaper. Similarly, Thomas A Repetto's Bringing Down the Mob seems like a book for Mafia buffs. I may have been hard on Howard Norman's Devotion, but Emily Barton's review didn't give me much to work with.

There are two reviews by experts in their fields, both somewhat problematic. Why not ask an expert to assess a book? Sounds like a great idea! In practice, however, the expert does not speak your language, and he will be helplessly bothered by trifles that won't concern you.

Another bit of good news, though: William Grimes's Essay, "Rediscovering Alexander Herzen," is just the sort of thing that ought to appear in this space ever week. Herzen is in the cultural news because of Tom Stoppard's monumental trilogy about nineteenth-century idealists and revolutionaries, The Coast of Utopia. Mr Grimes transforms Herzen from a "do I have to" writer to a stylist worthy of The New Yorker. Adam Gopnik's name is never mentioned, but the comparison is unavoidable.

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February 21, 2007

In the Book Review

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

It's been quite a while since I was first pricked by the sense that I've done what I had to do with this Review review gig. If I soldier on, it's because I know that a lot of literate readers have problems with Sam Tanenhaus's management of the Book Review. The other day, I encountered Scott Esposito's entry on the problem at Conversational Reading; by all means, follow his links to The Literary Salon and Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant. That Mr Tanenhaus is out to produce "journalism" appears to be not only misguided but unfulfilled, as the Review has almost nothing to say about the business of book publishing.

Instead of reporting on what's going on, the critics at the Book Review ought to make the news by judging the best books for the national conversation of critical readers. These readers don't need to be entertained by facetious illustrations (Patrick Thomas's for The Writing on the Wall) or books about penis length (Ron Jeremy). They don't need the anointment of past masters' latest titles (the new Paul Auster). They need to know about a handful of indispensable nonfiction books, and they need expanded access to the actual writing of fiction and verse. Nobody can read everything, but readers ought to come away from the Review reliably assured about books that will engage them.

I was unpleasantly surprised to see that Eileen Chang's Love in a Fallen City is briefly reviewed in Andrew Ervin's Fiction Chronicle. By most other accounts, Chang is an important Chinese writer whose discovery in English is overdue. She certainly deserves more space than Rachel Donadio gives, in her Essay, "Literary Agent," to the pulp fiction of E Howard Hunt.

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February 14, 2007

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.

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February 07, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Fighting a cold, I haven't been very enthusiastic this week, at least about the Book Review.  The dispiriting cloud of dusty triviality was thicker in this week's issue than it usually is. Only one of the six novels seemed unmistakably serious, and almost a third of the nonfiction titles struck me as miscellaneous and lacking or failing to merit truly general interest. 

I did like Greg Clarke's very droll gargoyle, above, which illustrates Caroline Weber's review of Andrew Hussey's Paris: The Secret History. I've seen this book in the shops, and I agree with something that Ms Weber hints at: it could have been much more solid.

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January 31, 2007

In the Book Review

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

This week, I'm going to try something new. Instead of following the Book Review's distinction between fiction and poetry - a distinction confined to the table of contents, I'm going to group my assessments of this week's reviews under three headings: Yes, Maybe, and No. These groupings reflect my judgment as to whether a given book ought to be reviewed in the Book Review at all. As far as possible, it does not indicate my judgment of the reviews themselves, but as the reviews are all I have to go on, in many cases, a poorly-conceived review may so badly misrepresent a book that I conclude that the book itself is unimportant at best.

I hope that the new distinctions will bring out the multi-dimensional nature of this project, which, I must say, I've been slow to discover. When I began, almost a year and a half ago, I rather lightheartedly approached the reviews as a target: did the review sell the book to me or didn't it? In time, this came to seem beside the point, the point being this: was the Book Review doing its job? If a review didn't sell me, that is, was the book or the review to blame? Thanks to a few authors who wrote to me, asking me to reconsider, I not only enjoyed some great reads but came to see that reviews appearing in the Book Review could be much more misleading than I'd thought. They say that any publicity is good publicity, but given the price of books and the time that they take to read, I don't think that the maxim applies to publishing.

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January 24, 2007

In the Book Review

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

Groan! This week's Book Review is all but overwhelmed by a huge essay about Norman Mailer, Lee Siegel's "Maestro of the Human Ego." From the title to the last sentence, I found it hard to follow Mr Siegel's thinking. He writes with a lot of transcendent-sounding terms about Mr Mailer's transcendent achievement as a writer.

To not cohere to received axes of fact - magical phrase! [??] - to approach life novelistically, is to make connections between the visible and the invisible world, and to transfigure the commonplace. We now are drowning in mind-numbing literature of the commonplace: tipping points, hive minds, "freakanomics," "bobos in paradise" - it is all lifestyle trends, marketing techniques, cheap behavioral psychology and glib social-pattern-spotting. This flood of minutiae makes one long for Mailer's heroic attempts to invest experience with a higher meaning, no matter how far-out or unacceptable some of his connections between seen and unseen might be. Even if such notions offend household pieties, they have the effect of making you return fully awake to first principles that had begun to make you snore. And when Mailer's connections work, they are beyond good.

In response to Mr Siegel's complaint about "mind-numbing literature of the commonplace," I would argue that it reflects a widespread aversion to literary heroics, a shared notion that perhaps we are not very good judges of ourselves when we leave facts and figures behind. The final sentence is empty cheerleading. Mr Siegel goes on to give an example of a connection - from Marilyn.

"Since sex is, after all, the most special form of human communication, and the technological society is built on expanding communication in much the same way capitalism was built on the expansive properties of capital and money, the perspective is toward greater promiscuity." If you are seeking an explanation for why pornography takes up most of the Internet, there it is.

Sex is "the most special form of human communication" - what on earth does that mean? Mr Mailer must find it exhausting, given his background, not to be "'a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn'."

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January 10, 2007

In the Book Review

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

I found myself pondering, this week, the existential significance of the book review - or at least the kind of book review that appears in the New York Times Book Review. What is it for? I no longer believe that it is necessarily meant, at a minimum, to be informative about books themselves. Week after week, reviewers shove the books aside and mount their own pulpits. Hatchet jobs are far from unknown. Unsympathetic reviews - which make so sense to me at all, now that I've thought bout it for a while - fail to provide readers with any direction. And because of constraints of time and space, not to mention the prospective, rather than appreciative, nature of the reviews, the pages rustle to the tune of marketing more than that of literary criticism.

There is a role for the Book Review, but I don't think that the current management is doing a very good job of playing it. I don't expect it to resemble the New York or London Review of Books. Those publications are more serious, but they're also more demanding, and somewhat delimited in their selection of titles. The Book Review ought to cover books of broad cultural importance, with more fiction coverage and fewer extraneous features. I'm all for amusing reviews - the Review could use a lot more laughter - but I'm finding "funny" Essays irrelevant and jejune. There ought to be a feature that talks candidly about buzz. That, after all, is what everyone in publishing talks about. Readers ought to be told more about how manuscripts are bought and promoted, and it wouldn't hurt to get the names of a few powerful editors out into the public discourse.

Reviewers ought to be chose much more carefully. Two consistently good reviewers appear this week - novelist Walter Kirn and Paul Gray - along with Times columnist Clyde Haberman, who used to be a foreign correspondent for the newspaper and who is therefore not entirely unqualified to write about Palestinian problems. As I've noted below, John T Edge gives us an ideal review, one that identifies the flavors of a book so precisely (and economically) that readers can quickly tell whether or not they'd find Wrestling With Gravy an enjoyable read.

To do that, Mr Edge has to have read Jonathan Reynolds's book sympathetically, whether he liked it or not. No reviewer can sympathize with every author, but I daresay few authors lack for sympathetic readers, and sympathetic readers alone can write usefully about books. If the editors of the Book Review can't do a better job of matching books with sympathetic readers, they ought to resign.

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January 03, 2007

In the Book Review

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

The reviews this week were largely responsible, and the books covered deserving. There was one book that I had already purchased, on the strength of the cover story, by the time I read the second review. As of this writing, I've read the first four of the eight stories in Mothers and Sons, and I have to take issue with the judgment of reviewer Pico Iyer, that Colm Tóibín is "more interested in emotion than in action or community." I see quite the opposite, at least so far.  Mr Tóibín's characters seem determined to keep emotion - unruly emotion, at any rate, at bay, and community nosiness bothers them far too much to allow the writer's interest in community to be deprecated. 

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December 27, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Don Chiasson's review of C K Williams's Collected Poems is generally enthusiastic, but it complains that the poet's "outraged new poems about Iraq end this volume on a note of bluster and treacle." There are, however, plenty of quotes to allow a reader to judge for himself.

This year's final cover story goes to What Is The What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers. Francine Prose's review explains this peculiar title and the joint nature of the project that the book embodies. Achak Deng is a real-life Sudanese refugee whose harrowing tale was Mr Eggers's raw material.

Eggers's generous spirit and seemingly inexhaustible energy - some of the qualities that made his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so popular - transform Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with all the imaginative sweep, the scope, and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.

Ms Prose also writes, "The considerable appeal of Valentino's personality and the force of Eggers's talent turn this eyewitness account of a terrible tragedy into a paradoxically pleasurable experience."

Benjamin Anastas's review of Last Seen Leaving, a "thriller" by Kelly Braffet, appears to be baffled by Ms Braffet's blending of high writing and low trope.

If only Braffet weren't so addicted to the cheaper forms of literary thrill-seeking, Last Seen Leaving might take the reader on a more satisfying ride. As it is, a novel that could have moved us as it races through unfamiliar country is content to circle the multiplex parking lot flashing a bumper sticker that reads unsafe at any speed.

I couldn't tell whether Last Seen Leaving is a genuine novel with pulp garnishes or a piece of pulp with no claim to be reviewed by the Review.

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December 20, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Excuse me? It's the week before Christmas. Is that an appropriate time for a "Books on War" issue?

It would seem that the purpose of a "Books on War" issue would be to capture the interest of readers who do not otherwise focus on military history. War is as human an activity as there is, unfortunately, but military history (not that I've read a great deal) seems either dishonest ("war is grand") or detached. We may like detachment in a surgeon at the operating table, but writing about "armies" is creepy: we are not ants. That's why writing about war has to be special in order to hold the general reader's attention.

Fiction & Poetry

On the cover this week, we have Brad Leithauser's very good review of Robert Fagles's new translation of Virgil's Aeneid. A fine poet himself, Mr Leithauser notes that the translator's most fundamental choice is between iambic pentameter, the standard English long line, or the Latin hexameter; he also tells us that Mr Fagles's has opted for "free verse, with the ghost of hexameter serving as loose armature. Having compared a few passages from the new book and from the last important translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, in 1983, Mr Leithauser concludes,

Yet if the blazing moments belong to Fitzgerald, there's a capaciousness to Fagles's line well suited to this fast story's ebb and flow. Aeneas is a storm-tossed man - the epic opens with shipwreck on the coast of Africa - and Fagles renders the pilgrimage in cadences that are encompassing without feeling cluttered.

(Mr Leithauser neglects to advise readers to read the epic aloud, so I shall do so.)

This week's lone novel is Jane Kuntz's translation of Lydie Salvayre's "deliciously dark little desk drama," Everyday Life. Julia Scheeres calls it a "commentary on today's cubicle culture, where employees are warehoused in such tight quarters that any hiring or firing throw the entire office ecosystem out of whack." (So that's what they mean by "NSFW.")


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein spends a good deal of her long review of Robert D Richardson's William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism: A Biography on storytelling, but eventually she engages with the biography and finds it wanting.

It is in using the life to grasp the philosophy that Richardson's book disappoints. Too often the philosophical positions themselves come out wrong, the emphasis cockeyed, the subtlety subtly missed.

Curiously, the reviewer's examples inclined me to side with Mr Richardson. There is no getting round the fact that James was a profoundly complicated man whose longing to be manly as well as lucid kept him from mastering the fashion of his own thought as well as his brother Henry mastered his.

Tom Shone writes an unhelpful review of John Sutherland's How to Read a Novel: A User's Guide. He does not say so, but Mr Sutherland is a dean of Trollope studies, and apparently a very gentlemanly gentleman. Perhaps it would have been wiser to assign his book to someone who did not go by a nickname. In any case, it is clear that Mr Shone is not temperamentally inclined to like, or even to try to understand, How to Read a Novel. This becomes crystal clear at the end, when he refers reader to the writings of Nick Hornby (another nickname). Mr Sutherland's book may be as unprepossessing as Mr Shone claims it is, but his claims don't sound very reliable.

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December 13, 2006

In the Book Review

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

This week's Review is as good as last week's was awful. Last week's list of the year's hundred best book is whittled down to ten titles, of which I see that I've read three, all of them novels.

Fiction & Poetry

Once again, Joel Brouwer and Eric McHenry team up to fill slightly less than a page and a half of the Book Review  with reports on nine volumes of poetry. They say that any publicity is great publicity, but it's hard to believe that these thumbnail sketches in this Poetry Chronicle will attract many new readers, or any at all who aren't already vigorously breasting the poetry swim. What's wanted is verse and comment: an entire poem, preferably, or an intelligible excerpt, followed by an appreciation in which the reviewer highlights the poem's workings. For the time being, sadly, we're stuck with blather. Here follow the salients, first from Mr Brouwer's five:

Ooga-Booga, By Frederick Seidel. "I can't decide whether Seidel has more in common with Philip Larkin or John Ashbery."

A Form of Optimism, by Roy Jacobstein. "...when he does kick off the sensible shoes of the "anecdote + reflection = insight" school, he shows himself capable of some truly fresh and vivid writing."

Lions Don't Eat Us, by Constance Quarterman Bridges. "But any such complaints are more than offset by the captivating narratives and hard-earned insights to be found in this elegantly constructed collection.

Ruin, by Cynthia Cruz. "Lovely and evocative lines like 'A desert city strobing in the distance like sex' and 'I was kneeling in the willow/When the sun fell back into its crib of poison' lose some of their luster when you realize Cruz might as easily have written 'Sex strobing in the distance like a desert city' or 'I was kneeling in the poison/When the willow fell back into its crib of sun" without doing any perceptible harm to her meaning."

Logorrhea, by Adrian C Louis. "Louis's conversational style and salty language can bring Charles Bukowski to mind, but Louis is less prone to self-pity, and his indignation is more righteous: 'We cannot tell you why we spent/a lifetime crawling when we/had wings that were strong,/supremely brown , and so holy'."

Mr McHenry's four:

Black Box, by Erin Belieu. "Belieu is scrupulous enough to find room in her poems both for blind rage and a recognition of rage's blindness."

God of This World To His Prophet: Poems, by Bill Coyle. "If some of the poems that precede 'Aubade' seem, by contrast, a little too much under his control, offering the mastery without the mystery, well, there's a lot to be said for mastery."

Where X Marks the Spot, by Bill Zavatsky. "His strengths, which are considerable, disclose themselves slowly over whole poems - pacing, proportion, the faithfully reproduced movements of a likable mind."

Splendor: Poems, by Steve Kronen. "Kronen's skill with the figurative allows him to borrow figures from familiar sources (the Old Testament, classical mythology), apply them to familiar objects, and still produce something original.

There are three books of stories in this week's Fiction rubric, two novels, and four authors. Alice Munro is the author of two of the short-fiction collections.

More than any other writer, Alice Munro reminds me of the gnomic line from Wallace Stevens's "Credences of Summer":

                             This is the barrenness

Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

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December 06, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Ach, it's the "Holiday Books" issue, bursting with titles. To keep the feature from eating up the next few days of my life, I'm going to cover stand-alone reviews only, ignoring the roundups even if they contain only one title.

The amount of storytelling in this issue is astonishing. When I described storytelling to someone today, he replied that it sounded like "the old fourth-grade strategy for writing book reports." Yes and no. Fourth-graders are really not equal to book criticism, and their reports are intended simply to prove that they have actually read a given book. For literary professionals to adopt the same summary technique is, given the experience and critical faculty that somehow got them the assignment in the first place, totally spankworthy. 

Fiction & Poetry

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued the Collected Poems of John Betjeman, to accompany its publication of A N Wilson's Betjeman: A Life. Charles McGrath spends most of his review on a thumbnail biography of his own. We get a little on the poetry,

Betjeman's taste in poetry overlapped with his taste in architecture: he had no use for the modern. He was actually a friend and former prep school pupil of T S Eliot, but he turned his back on Eliot's revolution and clung instead to the model of the Victorian poets who had shaped him in his youth.

and not much more about Mr Wilson's book:

Wilson's book, the latest to come off his seemingly nonstop assembly line, is a typically Wilsonian product - swift, efficient, and a little glib at times. It's not un-fond of its subject, but is more judicious in its claims than [Bevis] Hillier's overstuffed version, and, with access to some family correspondence that Hillier never saw, it's franker and more gossipy about the ironies and oddities of Betjeman's personal life.

I suppose that a review that assumed familiarity with the poet, still beloved in England, would have completely misfired. But Mr McGrath's reluctance to move beyond the story of Betjeman's life eloquently betrays the disinclination, not only of the Review but of the Times generally, to treat its readers as educated people.

Marisha Pessl's unfavorable review of Leanne Shapton's graphic novel, Was She Pretty? might at first sight seem reason enough to buy the book, but her conclusion seems to be intelligent.

One could argue futility is the point, that a book, devoid of plot, exploring jealousy, should inevitably lead us down a dead end, thus imitating its inventory of defunct affairs and fruitless emotions. If this is the case, if I have to choose a graphic novel, I'll be curling up in a chair not with stomach pain, thank you, but with Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. His monsters tell us more about love, our darkest fears and what it means to be - like Jerry, Dennis and all the exes, no matter how tragically hip they might seem from a distance - human.

Ms Pessl is not to be blamed, I think, for failing to provide a view of two facing pages of Was She Pretty? That was the editors' job. Graphic novels vary greatly in their balance of image and text, and the reader of reviews has the right to expect a representative sample. They acknowledge as much further on in the issue, offering  shots of the cover and four sets of facing pages of Ivan Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories. David Hajdu's review makes the case that this is the must-have book for anyone looking for an overview, however idiosyncratic, of the blooming hybrid of "art" and "literature."

Now going under the name graphic fiction, no doubt temporarily, the comics are all grown up, and this anthology represents the most cogent proof since Will Eisner pioneered the graphic novel and Art Spiegelman brought long-form comics to early perfection. What other kinds of art or entertainment invented for young people ever transcended their provenance as kid stuff?

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November 28, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week, David Kirby writes one of the best poetry reviews that I've ever read, covering Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold. The review gives a vivid sense of the poet's aesthetic, and, in passing, offers a fantastically useful taxonomy:

Whitman’s exactly the right patron for a poet like Kinnell. While contemporaries as different as John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Gary Snyder and Mark Strand all write a tighter, more gnomic line of the kind Emily Dickinson is famous for, Kinnell, like Allen Ginsberg, Donald Hall, Philip Levine and Gerald Stern, prefers to lasso poetry’s errant dogies with the long, floppy line that Whitman used, a line that sometimes misses its target, but what the hell — that loose charm is part of the appeal of Whitman and his followers to boot.

Mr Kirby notes that the book comes with a CD, on which Mr Kinnell reads "in a steady, pleasant voice." Sold!

Reading Liesl Schillinger's enthusiastic review of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, I had to bang my head a bit to dispel the dissonance of Michiko Kakutani's thorough panning in Books of the Times, the newspaper's daily feature.

Thomas Pynchon's new novel, ''Against the Day,'' reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.

Quaaludes! Have mercy, Michiko! Ms Schillinger's excellent review, however, makes it clear to me why I would have no patience for a book that she clearly likes. 

Lovers of the detective genre might find echoes of Conan Doyle’s peculiar American coal-mine-country intrigue, “The Valley of Fear”; fans of Horatio Alger will spot nods to by-your-own-bootstraps nostalgia; P. G. Wodehouse fanatics will be amazed to discover abundant Woosterish scenes peopled by wacky Brits (they belong to an esoteric society called True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or T.W.I.T.); sci-fi and fantasy devotees will find homages to Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and H. G. Wells (“Walloping Wellsianism!” a character cries); comics junkies will think of Neil Gaiman; admirers of “adult” fiction will savor salacious tangles redolent of Tom Robbins; and western aficionados can revel in tales of vigilantism, vendetta and heartbreak in rugged Western mining towns and old Mexico.

Conan Doyle and Wodehouse aside, this is a roster of writers - of kinds of writing - in which I have no interest. And I would not care to read a novel that reminded me of the two authors whom I do like; I should rather just read them. Ms Schillinger quotes enough from the novel to put me off my lunch. So much for this week's cover story.

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November 22, 2006

In the Book Review

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

This week's Book Review is so entertaining that it may have undermined my critical fortitude. The issue has a non-seasonal theme, and a title to go with it: "Bad Boys, Mean Girls, Revolutionaries, Outlaws, and Beautiful Losers." It's an irresistible rubric.

Bad Boys

Not being plugged in to the deeper layers of New York's media culture, I don't know just why the Review invited filmmaker John Waters to write an appreciation of Tennessee Williams, à propos of nothing in particular, for the "Bad Boy" issue. (Ha! There's undoubtedly a career-serving à propos underneath it somewhere - and I don't necessarily mean John Waters's.) It's a sweet piece, but because it's so strong about the very things that I long ago decided that I could live without out in Williams, it doesn't inspire me to reconsider my decision that the playwright is not on my list. Perhaps the following will make my case:

Of course, I knew who Tennessee Williams was. he was a bad man because the nuns in Catholic Sunday School had told us we'd go to hell if we saw that movie he wrote, Baby Doll - the one with the great ad campaign, with Carroll Baker in the crib sucking her thumb, that made Cardinal Spellman have a nation-wide hissy fit. The same ad I clipped out of The Baltimore Sun countless times and pasted in my secret scrapbook. The movie I planned to show over and overin the fantasy dirty-movie theatre in my mind that I was going to open later in life, causing a scandal in my parents' neighborhood.

The sad truth is that John Waters is far more my type of bad boy than Tennessee Williams could ever be. Williams is quoted in the piece as having said "I've had a wonderful and terrible life and I wouldn't cry for myself. Would you?" I don't buy this bit of braggadocio - not from the author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I admire Mr Waters for believing it, though.

Stephen Heller's review of I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life, by Al Goldstein and Josh Alan Friedman, is electric for one reason only: Mr Heller drops the fact, by way of disclosure, that he was the first art editor of Screw - at the age of seventeen. There is really nothing that Al Goldstein can have done, in his long and picaresque exploitation of the First Amendment, that equals Mr Heller's professional precocity. But something about the review suggests that Mr Heller may have learned a thing or two about generosity from his former boss.

Goldstein, in addition to being a porn king, made an art of self-loathing. It pervades I, Goldstein, and was his most driving and destructive force. Despite his aggressively funny writing style, Goldstein doubted he was truly intelligent.

There is currently no more emphatic praise than to say of someone that he or she doubted his or her intelligence. Mr Heller may be forgiven, under the circumstances, for having much more to say about Al Goldstein than he has to say about Mr Goldstein's memoir, which is almost definitely review-proof.

Ron Powers nails Barry Miles's biography, Charles Bukowski, in one line - to which I'll add the one that follows.

Since Miles curiously offers hardly any examples of Bukowski's poetry, he is in a competition that only his subject can win. Why bother to read the biographer's endless prosaic variations on "He drowned himself in alcohol" when we have access to the master's own testimony.

Mr Powers also thinks that Howard Sounes's 1999's Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is a better study. He does suggest, however, that Mr Miles writes better than he thinks he does.

Ralph Steadman, the excoriating illustrator who among other things was Hunter S Thompson's sidekick on several gonzo journalistic exploits, has given us The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S Thompson, and Me. Will Blythe notes that "For a few years in the 1970s, it did appear that insanity was a great career move," and/but concludes that "His illustrator tries to put the best possible light on the matter, but betrayed and appalled, he can't." I myself have had all photographs taken of me during the early Seventies destroyed, and I advise you to do likewise. Only the women came out of that time looking good.

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November 08, 2006

In the Book Review

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


Although he feels that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway) might have been a little longer, so as to allow somewhat fuller treatment of the lives of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, Tom LeClair gives the author's first book to be translated into English a very favorable review.

What distinguishes Kehlmann are quickness of pace and lightness of touch. He has said he admires The Simpsons. If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist.

The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits, is the novel that everyone's currently talking about, and Emily Nussbaum's review communicates a sense of the book's edginess.

But the book is most successful at exploring the psychology of a particular type of teenage girl, an apparently colorless figure who reveals under pressure a perverse bravado. Oscillating between vampish provocateur and blank slate, Mary may not be precisely realistic - her dialogue is so arch it practically bends backward - but there is something recognizable about this mess of a teenage girl, so enraged at the lies of adults that she's willing to take on any mask to expose them.

Troy Patterson's review of Only Revolutions, by Mark Z Danielewski, succeeded only in baffling me. An "epic tone poem"? The quotes suggest that the novel - if it is a novel - is written in blank verse. There is also the hint that the book can be turned 180 degrees and still be readable. "But it's clear that Danielewski has an entrancing way with overrich wordplay..." Yikes!

If we are to call Only Revolutions a novel, then we must, at the very least, call it a road novel in which the road, one of those numbered routes from an old, weird folk song, is a Möbius strip.

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November 01, 2006

In the Book Review

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


Accompanied by a nice photograph of the author and his dogs, A O Scott's extremely favorable review of Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land does what it can to push Mr Ford onto the Olympian summits of American letters. Toward the end, he writes of Frank Bascombe, the ordinary guy at the center of a trilogy of novels,

But the point is, you must take Frank as he is, and admit him into your circle of intimates according to affinities that go deeper than literary taste. And accepting him - extending your sympathy, laughing at his jokes, overlooking his crotchets and prejudices - amounts nearly to an ethical imperative, the acknowledgment of his personhood.

But I'm afraid that Mr Scott said nothing to persuade me that Frank Bascombe is worth Mr Ford's attentions, doubt about which crept in when I read excerpts from Independence Day in The New Yorker. Mr Ford is an extraordinarily gifted writer, but there's a weird narcissism about Frank, as if he's in love with the ordinary guy he's trying to be.

Christopher Dickey's review of Magic Time, by Doug Marlette, is a stammering affair, haunted, I suppose by echoes of the Civil Rights movement as it was experience by white Southerners and as it forms the foundation of this novel.

Alongside these historical events, and drawing from them, Marlette creates a narrative where nothing and no one is quite real; all is more or less subtle caricature. (One resists using that word, since the novelist is best known as a cartoonist, but, well, there it is.) ... But the storytelling is involving and the plot wondrously complicated, a tall tale about terrible times that were, in memory, magical and magnificent.

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October 25, 2006

In the Book Review

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

In this space not quite a year ago, when I was still new to the project of reviewing the Book Review, I wrote the following rather cavalier capsule:

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Mr Long subsequently contacted me and took me up on my offer to read the book if asked to do so. I duly read the book - and liked it very much. Mr Long invited me to a book party at Lenox Hill Books, where I was the only guest who wasn't an old friend. He could not have been nicer to me. We exchanged a few emails, and I hoped to have lunch with him some time when he might come into town from East Hampton. I don't think that we had any contact at all in 2006, but I thought of him, and of his book, quite often, not least because they opened my eyes to Abstract Expressionism.

I was very sorry to hear, the other day, from a friend of Mr Long's who found my Portico page via Google, that the writer died last week of pancreatic cancer. I should have liked to know him better. Then again, I should never have known him at all if I hadn't undertaken this review. You never know which door will open to your knock, but the Internet opens thousands of corridors. I feel very lucky to be one of the people who will remember Robert Long. 


An odd issue: only three novels, and an extremely long review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. The novels are a very odd batch: Thomas Bernhard (who died in 1989 but whose novel has just been translated, for masochistic readers), Richard Powers (reviewed by Colson Whitehead, no less - in-crowd treatment), and a historical legal thriller about Cicero by Robert Harris. Marcel Theroux's review of Imperium does a fine job of assessing Mr Harris's timely novel.

His Cicero is a Clinton or a Blair: an ambitious provincial, a lawyer with political aspirations and aided by a strong and opinionated wife, starting out with neither wealth nor powerful friends; a man of shifting ideological conviction but confident of his own benevolence, assiduous, driven and in love with the very process of politics.

We know what happened to Cicero (and to politics). Christopher Benfey gamely tries to adduce reasons why anyone would want to read Bernhard's Frost (1963), hitherto unavailable in English, but the writer's misanthropic perversity shines through. 

With such a minimal plot and cursory descriptions, there's plenty of room for Strauch's musings, as reported by the impressed and increasingly unhinged narrator. Strauch has little to say about art. He hates the art world and hasn't painted in years; when he still did, he painted in darkness. "When he thought his picture was done, he drew back the curtains, so abruptly that the light blinded him and he couldn't see."

Mr Whitehead's cheerleading review of The Echo Maker is so plush with storytelling that I can only appraise it as a service to people who want to know what the latest Powers book is about because they're not going to get round to reading it. Although he means to be favorable, his condensation of the novel is anything but interesting; it gave me a headache to try to follow it.

The Echo Makers joins my Powers favorites through the admirable harmony he achieves between his rhetorical strategies - on the life of the sandhill cranes, on the furrowed dynamism of the brain - and the travails of Mark, Karin and Weber as they try to navigate their altered territories.

Between the cranes and the navigation, I'm not roused.

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October 18, 2006

In the Book Review

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

There's a lot of fiction this week, but the strong reviews are on the other side of the divide, with no less an eminence than Henry Kissinger reviewing the new book about Dean Acheson. Daniel Mendelsohn's review of The Discomfort Zone is, in contrast, a disgrace to the Book Review.

I'll bet that Sena Jeter Naslund and her people didn't expect her Marie Antoinette book to be covered in the Review.


One of the small payoffs of reviewing the Book Review is learning what to expect of certain reviewers. Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times of London, is either nasty or unsympathetic in three of the four reviews that she has contributed to the Review since I started paying attention; either way, she is never entirely intelligible. Make that four out of five. Her review of Edna O'Brien's The Light of Evening is unsympathetic. The review is a mix of storytelling and slapdown. It is also useless.

Elissa Schappell does a little better by Joyce Carol Oates. She storytells Black Girl/White Girl for a few paragraphs before settling into what one feels is the inevitable judgment.

By now, it's a cliché to comment on the rate at which Oates turns out books, making Trollope look as if he was writing in handcuffs. Still, this one feels rushed to a conclusion.

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October 11, 2006

In the Book Review

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

This week's better reviews are by Pankaj Mishra (Bruce Wagner's Memorial) and Tom Reiss (Fritz Stern's Five Germanys I Have Known). Thomas Mallon's coverage of books about Katharine and Audrey Hepburn is one big piece of storytelling, and it belongs in Vanity Fair, but, not surprisingly, given the reviewer, it's compellingly interesting. If you'd like to hear Mr Fallon discuss his book about plagiarism, Stolen Words, in a radio interview from 1989, click here.

Fiction & Poetry

The cover story, which sprawls over a great deal of interior space, is William Kennedy's review of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic new novel, The Road. The premise of this book is so obscene that I could not bring myself to soak up what Mr Kennedy has to say about it. Although he means to recommend the book, he makes a formidable case against it. Having read Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses, I know that Mr McCarthy is a formidable misanthrope, and I have no time for misanthropy. Mr Kennedy writes,

McCarthy has said that death is the major issue in the world and that writers who don't address it are not serious. Death reaches very near totality in this novel. Billions of people have died, all animal and plant life, the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea are dead: "At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as the eye could see like an isocline of death."

But death is obviously not the subject here. Destruction is. Killing is. Mr Kennedy's review is, perhaps rightly, dazed as by trauma. It does not inquire into the meaning of Mr McCarthy's vision, or the significance of such a book's publication. The editors of the Review have pre-empted such considerations in the very placement (and length) of the piece.

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September 27, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Of the full-dress reviews, only those by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Gorra are good ones; perhaps not incidentally, they're also favorable.

Nonfiction fares much better, with good reviews by Ron Rosenbaum, Christopher Buckley, Geoff Dyer, and Jennifer Senior. Actually, they're all good - although I didn't quite understand Ron Powers or his subject, E L Doctorow.

Fiction & Poetry

Martha Collins's Blue Front is a collection of poems written around a central theme. Dana Goodyear is too busy explaining why the lynching and dismemberment of a black man in 1909 is of such interest to Ms Collins to convey much of a sense of the verse. The review is tantalizing but irritating.

Terrence Rafferty might have improved his very enthusiastic review of David Long's The Inhabited World by quoting an entire paragraph. That's always a good idea in any review, but here, where Mr Rafferty claims that it's the quality of the writing that buoys up the narrative of suicide ghost, it's essential.

The novel wouldn't work if Long weren't able to convey the keenness of the joys his hero has left behind, and he is able, emphatically. It's the restrained sensuality of the writing itself that quickens this sad story for him, the tingle of the sentences as they flow.

Don't ask me to take your word for it! Michael Gorra's somewhat longer review of Forgetfulness, the new novel by Ward Just, is similarly favorable, but more illuminating.

In formal terms, Just stays firmly within the canons of contemporary American realism, but he differs from his peers in the ease with which he glides between affairs of state and close-grained portraits of domestic life. In this, he resembles the James Gould Cozzens of Guard of Honor, that matchless account of America at the work of war, and Just's fiction offers some of the same shrewd worldliness.

That might not be helpful to someone who has not read Cozzens - and who has these days, below the age of fifty? - but the comparison at least raises a shout for the older writer. If there's one novel in this week's Review that I might read, it's this one.

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September 20, 2006

In the Book Review

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

May I just take a second to complain about subtitles in which X is the making of Y? Such statements usually stretch plausibility beyond the snapping point. Also: one does not forge pathways.

There are more than a few poor reviews to wade through, this week, but there are some good ones, too. Just this once, I've made it a snap for you compare the Book Review's reviews with Janet Maslin's reviews in the Times proper. In both cases, Ms Maslin does the better job.

Fiction & Poetry??

Joel Brouwer's review of Scar Tissue, Charles Wright's latest volume of poetry, is almost unintelligibly insidery. "Wright's paradoxical sentiments come wrapped in gently meandering lines and sentences that seem not to want to end lest they appear to conclude." I think I know what that means, but "conclude" seems deliberately arch. I am not sure that Mr Brouwer recommends the book.

So much for poetry. Eleven novels are reviewed (ouf!). The first, The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier (translated by Lorin Stein), is billed as a memoir by Erica Wagner, who finds it "endearing." The book is apparently the novelization of an episode in the writer's life. Noting that the novel has been "fluently and colloquially translated, Ms Wagner writes, "This is the theme of this work, the will to find connections, to believe in something other than random suffering."

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September 13, 2006

In the Book Review

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

I'm considering setting up a "terms of art" page for this feature. "Storytelling" means something very specific in this space. It is not a good thing, to begin with. Storytelling is a substitute for critical appraisal. What the storyteller does is tell the story, basically, of the book under review, without much concrete reference to the manner in which the reviewed author tells it. The worst kind of storytelling leaves you confused as to how much the reviewer knew about a subject before he opened the book and how much he learned from it. The book itself is occluded by the storytelling. Storytellers are abusing their privileges as reviewers, and their names ought to be removed from editors' lists.

Fiction & Poetry??

This week's poet is Hayden Carruth, whose Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems is not particularly well-served by Brian Henry's review. Mr Henry talks a lot about Mr Carruth's career but hardly quotes any poetry. As an appreciation of the poet's art - meant for readers already familiar with Mr Carruth - the piece may have some virtue, but it is an almost completely useless review.

On balance, this week's fiction reviews are good: they get across what kind of reading each will involve. The excpetion is Paul Gray's review of Alice McDermott's After This. I can't quite decipher it. After a bit of storytelling, he writes, "Once this hectic episode concludes, McDermott's narrative turns episodic and digressive, and After This begins to resemble a photo album with many missing snapshots and pages. Ms McDermott happens to write very beautifully; an album of her snapshots might be all the more beguiling for missing a few pictures. But Mr Gray doesn't talk about the writing at all; it's clear that the book bored him.  Allegra Goodman tries to give Jennifer Gilmore's Golden Country a good review, but in the course of doing her job - discussing Ms Gilmore's writing - she fails.

The effect is a kind of footnoting that distances the reader from the characters. It is one thing to write a novel set in the past, another to burden its characters with such an intense consciousness of American history. They swing dangerously close to emblematic significance when they need to breath.

Thank you, Ms Goodman. Claire Dederer, similarly, is very clear about the drawbacks of Anna Quindlen's new novel, Rise and Shine:

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September 06, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Regular reviewing of the Book Review resumes this week. It's a laborious business, but it makes me much more knowledgeable about what's going on in books than simply reading reviews of books that look interesting. It also sharpens some very basic ideas about literary criticism. The lesson that I've taken most to heart is that I dislike hostile reviews. Unless they're extremely clever (which they rarely are), they're just unnecessary. Rotten reviews are a kind of gossip, really, and have nothing to do with literature. I hesitate to point to an example, but as it happens someone sent me the link to this trashing of Jonathan Franzen's new collection of essays, The Discomfort Zone. If you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to one sentence.

Fiction & Poetry

Brad Leithauser's sympathetic review of Not For Specialists: New and Selected Poems, by W D Snodgrass, does a good job of outlining the poet's career while featuring his strengths.

Only a few [poems] are deeply affecting. And yet the ones that are are real glories.

It is a pity that the Times cannot more systematically cover the work of living poets, and I, for one, would like to more about the topography of the field. Where are the centers, and what are the important events. I've got a few inklings, but not an organized idea.

The cover, this week, goes to Thomas McGuane's Gallatin Canyon: Stories. Stephen Metcalf's favorable review goes beyond the book at hand to attempt to place McGuane, and to some degree to polish his reputation a bit.

And yet he's failed, for better and for worse, to become an Event Fiction brand name. His perceived regionalism and his attraction to masculine themes have certainly contributed to this, but Gallatin Canyon does everything in its power to break down a silly American dichotomy, between a supposedly feminine preoccupation with manners and a supposedly masculine preoccupation with, well, everything else: sex, nature, aboriginal selfhood, you get the drill. McGuane has driven so hard into the heart of received wisdom concerning American manhood, otherwise known as American loneliness, that he has broken through to the other side.

That sounds very good, but I'm not sure what it means to break through received wisdom. Jim Holt's review of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, by Janna Levin, left me completely in the dark about whether this novel about Gödel, Turing, and Wittgenstein, which Mr Holt says "fits squarely in the genre of the subgenre of the novel of ideas," is actually readable; a great deal of his commentary suggests that it isn't.

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August 30, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

It was unusually difficult, this week, to find sentences that conveyed the gist of the reviews in which they appeared while also casting come light on the books themselves. Emily Barton's review of Reading Like a Writer propelled me to the nearest bookstore for a copy of Francine Prose's new book, and, having finished it, I can only wish that fiction reviewers would look to it for guidance. Ms Prose can talk about writing in great detail without giving too much story away. Too many reviews regurgitate contents without providing much of a sense of what spending book-length time with them might be like.


The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud. "Among its many pleasures, this novel indisputably reminds us of one truth that cannot be declared fungible: the obdurate reality of the human imagination. The Emperor's Children is a penetrating testament to its power." - Meghan O'Rourke.

The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany (translated by Humphrey Davies. "For the last quarter-century, Egypt has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak, a president who has won elections by imprisoning his opponents and has presided over a ramshackle economy riddled with corruption. From this depressing landscape, Alaa Al Aswany has conjured a bewitching political novel of contemporary Cairo that is also an engagé novel about power and a comic yet sympathetic novel about the vagaries of the human heart." - Lorraine Adams.

All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P Jones. "But there are no roughly sketched characters in Jones's stories. All are given the benefit of the doubt, and there is evidence that a better path is not out of reach for anyone. Even the most sympathetic characters, though, make decisions that are far too human to be doubted." - Dave Eggers.

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain. "Each of these eight stories is as rich as a novel - high praise when you consider how many of today's novels could be distilled into a short story." - Liesl Schillinger.

Voyage Along the Horizon and Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Two: Dance and Dream, by Javier Marías (translated by Kristina Cordero and Margaret Jull Costa, respectively). "If Voyage Along the Horizon could have been written by almost anyone (at times, it seems to have been written by everyone)..." "The slow, indefinite revelation of his universe is the most affecting narrative feat in Marías's work to date. It has a musical lightness that recalls Charles Ives's Unanswered Question, a composition that rises but does not resolve." - Wyatt Mason.

The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan. About a dish called "Dragon in the Flame of Desire": "This prurient item might easily have been featured in The Banquet Bug, Genling Yan's sly comic novel about the excesses - culinary and otherwise - of modern life in the Chinese capital. Although it may seem fantastical, her fiction is rooted in fact." - Ligaya Mishan. 

The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury. "This fine, ambling novel ends with a tug of war between the spiritual we don't altogether trust and the grind we're somehow unable to resist." - Robert Draper.


Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. "I became a writer because books gave me such joy. Her insistence on that pleasure informs her method: reading carefully to see what au author does on the page and between the lines. This casts learning in a positive light, unlike the typical workshops E R approach of trying to diagnose and cure the ailments of a story." - Emily Barton.

The Reluctant Mr Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, by David Quammen. "Darwin's creativity in explaining how species vary forms the crux of the story here. Quammen's book is almost as creative, giving a very free translation of his secondary sources. ... Invitations were answered with [Darwin's] courteous refusals, and no cultural refraction can render these, as Quammen does, as 'Leave me the hell alone!'" - Adrian Desmond.

When Sex Goes to School: Warring Views on Sex - and Sex Education - Since the Sixties, by Kristin Luker. "One way to get these conflicting world-views out into the open is to fight about marriage, which Luker thinks is the true subject of the sex-ed wars." - Judith Shulevitz.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorhead. "Beyond the illustriousness of her correspondents ... what makes this book a literary landmark is that Gellhorn's prose, splendid enough in her 13 published books of fiction, travel writing and reportage, is at its finest in the letter form." - Francine du Plessix Gray.

The President's Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales, by Bill Minutaglio. ""Minutaglio's fascinating book will surely not be the last word on this sorry tale, but it goes a long way toward removing the veil Gonalez has tried to drape over his career." - Jacob Heilbrun.

Natural Selection: Gary Giddens on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books, by Gary Giddens. "He makes the case that popular culture, in all its minutiae, ultimately engages us with the world; immersing oneself in a book, song or film is the very opposite of escapist." - Ada Calhoun.

¶ Nonfiction Chronicle. - Tara McKelvey

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S Collins. "In a country where a large percentage of the population believes that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that humans once frolicked with dinosaurs, his argument that science and faith are compatible deserves a wide hearing."

In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line, by George Hutchinson. "IN Hutchinson's telling, Larsen doesn't seem at home in any society, black or white, even as a adult. That subtitle makes it sound as if this were a dry analysis of race and society. In fact, the book is about Larsen. The brings the issues to life." 

Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, by John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein. "Somehow, the books lacks drama and texture. Although Schleifstein was on the scene, you'd never know it from the detached prose."

A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "Despite a Dickensian childhood, institutional sadism and bad luck, [George Appo] remains honest, in his own way, and is rightly transformed into an American hero."

Grayson, by Lynne Cox. "But given the platitudes ('Sometimes you just have to believe') and bland observations, this hardly seems worth a 5 AM swim in 55-degree water."

Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, by Marc D Hause. "The vast bulk of Moral Minds consists of reports of experimental results,, but Hauser does very little to make clear how these results bear on his claim that there is a 'moral voice of our species'." - Richard Rorty.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "The Mystery of the Missing Novel," is a disturbing look into WW Norton's refusal to publish John Robert Lennon's Happyland, presumably for fear of offending American Girl creator Pleasant Rowland.

This review was written on 3 September 2006 and backdated; see below for scanty details about the refrigerator crisis that distracted me.

August 23, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

A fizzy issue this week, higher on buzz than lit-ra-ture. John Wranovics's review of Short Dog spends far too much time talking about the author's father's career. The book about Tiptree/Sheldon (on the cover, of course!) seems to be of interest because a woman posed as a male writer. Maybe there are too many books in my pile at the moment, but the idea of reading almost anything covered in this week's Review is insupportable wearying.

Fiction & Poetry

Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. "Dietz's lippy candor is invigorating in a wish-I'd-thought-of-that way, and it's a pleasure to be led through her world as she looks at familiar objects with fresh eyes." - David Kirby.

The Brambles, by Eliza Minot. "If Minot had less command over her prose, this might have been fatal. As it is, however, she delivers such consistently perceptive, even stunning sentences that it's easy to overlook the less than cohesive story and just recline inside the characters' minds and listen to them think. This novel is imperfect in a way that leaves you marveling at the many things it does right and looking forward to the artist's next move." - Meghan Daum.

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August 16, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

There are three strong works of fiction, this week, and I wonder how many readers will read all of them. (I've already got a signed copy of Special Topics in Calamity Physics.) Three is also the number of important works of nonfiction are reviewed this week, The Wonga Coup, The Shia Revival, and, of course, Fiasco. I hope that RumChen & Co lose no time brand author Thomas E Ricks as a giver of aid and comfort to the enemy.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. It's on the cover and it gets a lot of space. "The joys of this shrewdly playful narrative lie not only in the high-low dives of Pessl's tricky plotting, but in her prose, which floats and runs as if by instinct, unpremeditated and unerring." - Liesl Schillinger.

A Woman in Jerusalem, by A B Yehoshua. "This novel has about it the force and deceptive simplicity of a masterpiece: terse (or relatively so, given than Yehoshua's novels are often long), eminently readable but resolutely dense." - Claire Messud.

The Girls, by Lori Lansens; Half Life, by Shelley Jackson. "Just like certain sets of more ordinary twins, however, these two books are alike only on the surface. Their aims are as different as the styles in which they are written. The Girls, by Lori Lansens, is a ballad, a melancholy song of two very strange, enchanted girls who live out their peculiar, ordinary lives in a rural corner of Canada. Shelley Jackson's Half Life is the textual equivalent of an installation, a multivocal, polymorphous, dialogic, dystopian satire wrapped around a murder mystery wrapped around a bildungsroman." - Stacey D'Erasmo.

Nancy Culpepper: Stories, by Bobbie Ann Mason. "Even in its lighter moments, Mason's fiction can inspire a yearning for something lost - whether it's a person, a place of a moment." Hillary Frey.

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August 09, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

Planting his extraordinarily long discussion (four pages) of Richard Hofstadter at a time when active readership probably bottoms out, Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus perhaps meant to minimize the disproportionateness of his piece. He has very little to say about David S Brown's new intellectual biography of the Columbia professor, who died, relatively young, in 1970, but he has a lot of good things to say about the nature of Hofstadter's work - more inclined toward the essay than to the research monograph - and about the understandable "flip-flops" that history pushed Hofstadter into.

At this moment, when so many seek to recover that lost world or to invent an updated version of it - a post 9/11 cold-war liberalism or a reconstituted "vital center" - Hofstadter's case deserves a fresh look, for he knew very well just how fragile liberalism is, even if he sometimes mistook its prejudices for principles and its illusions for ideals.

The essay does a lot to impart a New York Review of Books gravitas to the Review. More to come?

Note to Dexter Filkins (reviewer of this week's cover story, The Looming Tower): The notion of finding dignity in death may be one of the things that Islam picked up from Christianity.


All Things, All At Once: New and Selected Stories, by Lee K Abbott. "Despite all the loquacious banter in this impressive collection, the most important moments turn out to be the ones in which, even briefly, words weren't enough." - Meg Wolitzer.

An Iliad, Alessandro Baricco (translated by An Goldstein). "Bringing new light, new readers to a thing such as the Iliad is noble. Using it as a premise for self-indulgence is not." - Nick Tosches.

The Abortionist's Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde. "What begins as a riveting exploration of the abortion debate and its effects on a community becomes instead a more conventional account of a young woman's sexual confusion." - Danielle Trussoni.

The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. "Winsomeness can work wonders in person. Every audience waiting for the curtain to rise or the movie to begin (after all those annoying ads and previews) is a huddled mass yearning to be astonished or entertained or amused or, at the very least, diverted, given some consolation for having gone to the trouble of showing up in the first place. Solitary readers can be tougher customers, prone, for example, to grow irritable when the words on the page, unaccompanied by the physical presence and inflections of a speaker, seem flat or insipid." - Paul Gray.

Babylon: And Other Stories, by Alix Ohlin. "Readers will decide for themselves whether Ohlin's stories, upon close inspection, are made of finely woven truths or appealing fictions, but this distinction hardly matters when the book is open in your hands and Babylon is singing." - Benjamin Anastas.


The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9'11, by Lawrence Wright. "Wright shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy - its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder - lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straitjacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government that is unable to provide any reason to believe in the future. Islam offers dignity, even in - especially in - death." - Dexter Filkins.

The Shark God: Encounters With Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific, by Charles Montgomery. "Montgomery grapples with the Christian-pagan collision, which he sees by turns as a "train wreck of faiths," a "psychospiritual Disneyland" or "spiritual acrobatics." His gaze soon begins to shift from the differences between Christianity and the islands' religious beliefs to their similarities, most important, their shared belief in miracles." - Holly Morris.

Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "What Gilfoyle does not say (and perhaps doesn't see) is that a park financed by donors given the power to select objects and artists will look very different from one in which aesthetic or social concerns predominate from the first. It will tend to be less a unified landscape that a series of detached vignettes - in effect, naming opportunities." - Michael J Lewis.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, by John Pomfret. "The issue of whether China chooses to confront its past or continues 'hiding behind history' will almost certainly end up being as important to its future as all the foreign investment, technology transfers, IPOs and high-rise buildings that now so impress visitors and eclipse the past. As one former classmate, a Red Guard who beat and tortured supposed 'class enemies' during the Cultural Revolution, candidly asks Pomfret: 'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?'" Orville Schell.

Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer, by Brooke A Masters. "The most significant chapters of Spitzer's life are probably yet to be written. This diligent midlife appraisal charts his direction, and suggests he will continue to defy conventions. But will he, as Teddy Roosevelt commanded, continue to 'dare mighty things'?" - Joe Conason.

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, by Alexandra Robbins. "Some readers will undoubtedly mine The Overachievers for hints on how the Teacher's Pet got into Middlebury early, or why a student with the ideal transcript was wait-listed at Yale. They will miss the point. These kids may have learned how to play the game, but as Robbins makes clear, it's time to change the rules." - Eugenie Allen. 

The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Sergio Berlusconi, by Alexander Stille. "Stille notes that the more television people watched, the more inclined they were to vote for Berlusconi, as if they were all but brainwashed into submission." - Rachel Donadio.

Hollywood Jock: 365 Days, Four Screenplays, Three TV Pitches, Two Kids, and One Wife Who's Ready to Pull the Plug, by Rob Ryder. "Ryder may struggle to keep his anecdotes on course, but he has no trouble keeping track of the people he's worried about offending. He spends a lot of time trashing Hollywood and then backtracking into blanket apologies." - Mark Kamine. 

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown. "Brown admirably balances respect for his subject with critical distance and persuasively makes the case that the ambiguousness of Hofstadter's writing is inseparable from his continuing interest." - Sam Tanenhaus.

Joe Queenan's Essay, "Why I Can't Stop Starting Books," gets right to the bottom of the modern reader's problem:

I used to think that I kept stopping and starting books because I could never find the right one. Untrue. All these books are the right one. It's the fact that all these books are generally so good that makes me stop reading them, as I am in no hurry to finish; the bad ones I whip through in a few hours."


August 02, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

We interrupt our vacation (ha!*) to bring you an express review of the Book Review. One or two sentences have been chosen from each review, not because it will give an idea of what the book's about but rather because it betrays the quality of the review. Will Blythe's review of Talk Talk, for example, is every bit as windy and pointless as is my extract. ("Longstanding virtuosities"? - chalk on a blackboard!) Caryn James was probably not the right choice for Grief. And surely Neil Genzlinger could have foreseen that Execution is, as he says, to be read in random swoops, not all at once, as he apparently read it.

On the whole, this week's reviews were diligent and sensible. There's nothing sensationally egregious to laugh at/rail against.


The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. "The opening of her new novel, The Keep, lays out a whole Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections and trompe l'oeil effects, but what's more immediately striking about this book is its unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction." - Madison Smartt Bell.

The Ruins, by Scott Smith. "The Ruins is superior horror literature, but it does not entirely overcome the pile-driving limitations of the genre; it might have been more effective as a short story." - Gary Kamiya.

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July 26, 2006

In the Book Review

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

The other day, I learned that a gent by the name of Levi Asher, writing in Brooklyn, gives the New York Times Book Review a weekly once-over. Having just discovered me, he writes in his current entry that the Daily Blague is "the latest member of the hit squad." I can't wait to learn more!


The ratio of fiction to nonfiction is closer to balance than I can recall its having been, at least in a normal, non-themed issue. Even more interesting is the fact that Liesl Schillinger reviews two novels by the same writer, Will Clarke. I'm not sure that I've got this straight, but it appears that Mr Clarke self-published Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel (Sort Of) and The Worthy: A Ghost's Story "and waited for Paramount, Simon & Schuster and Columbia Pictures to find him." Sure enough, there's an IMDb listing for The Worthy. These novels, in short, have been out for a bit; now that they're "officially" published, the Book Review can take notice. Ms Schillinger is enthusiastic about both books, although she devotes only two paragraphs to The Worthy, for the most part gamely summarizing the bizarre plots. I'd have liked a bit more in the writing-sample department, because I can tell from the review's report of Mr Clarke's material that whether I'd find his fiction delightful or insufferable would depend entirely on the music of his prose.

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July 19, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Seamus Heaney's new collection of poems, District and Circle, gets a nice review from fellow poet Brad Leithauser. Sympathetic and favorable, it begins with a paragraph about judging poets by their approach to rhyme, and goes on to suggest that Mr Heaney's rough rhymes (of which, unfortunately, he provides no examples) correspond eloquently to the Irish topography that is never far from his verse.

Heaney has always had a gift for recounting chance encounters, poignant little anecdotes. His voice carries the authenticity and believability of the plainspoken - even though (herein his magic) his words are anything but plainspoken. His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say. 

In fiction, two novels, both of South American extraction, get full-page treatment, while two novels with academic settings get reviews that share a page. And then there's Andrew Sean Greer's puzzling review of Voodoo Heart: Stories, by Scott Snyder. Mr Greer believes that the collection consists of two remarkably inventive stores and five workmanlike ones.

Snyder's true talent is revealed when he lets his imagination soar. In the final story, a young man, barnstorming his way across the Midwest, finds a runaway bride in his biplane. When he sits with her by a campfire and they invent a fictional account of their courtship and wedding - "you took my hand and we went out the bedroom window and climbed down the rain gutter together" - they transport us to the beautiful, quiet, darkened room of the best fiction. The sound of traffic disappears and time flows away and we're in the middle of that primal American narrative: the invention of the self. We read on to see if the runaway will really climb out on that airplane's wing. And when she does - "a pretty girl in a blue dress, head thrown back, the wind in her hair as she passed overhead" - the moment is pure ecstasy.

Sympathetic reviews are effective because they enter into the quality of their subject matter and so share it with the review's reader. As William H Gass says in his essay about Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (in  The Temple of Texts), quality cannot be reported. But it can be captured and presented. The paragraph that I've just quoted indicates to me that neither Mr Snyder nor Mr Greer is a writer about whom I want to know more, but that's the point. The selfsame paragraph may leap out appealingly at you.

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July 12, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The Library of America has launched an offshoot line of poetry books, and Cole Porter is "the first lyricist of any stripe," writes David Barber, "to make the roster." Mr Barber, poetry editor at Atlantic, waxes very enthusiastic about Robert Kimball's collection, Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. He reminds us, however, that words are only half of the Cole Porter story.

Truth be told, there's something about his words all by their lonesome that smacks of taxidermy: their pulse depends not only on the visceral artistry of vocal delivery but on the stage personas and narrative trappings so vital to Porter's collaborative medium.

It might have been better to assign this book to someone unfamiliar with the Porter oeuvre. Dan Chiasson gives the very different White Apples and the Taste of the Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006, the latest collection of Donald Hall's poetry, that rarest of pieces, the sympathetic but unfavorable review. The thrust of Mr Chiasson's complaint is that Mr Hall has not been nearly selective enough. 

But a short book of very fine poems is what Hall, over the course of his career, has made. A selected poems reflecting that proud fact would make his best work seem the result of terms carefully developed, pains taken. This book tells another story.

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July 05, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Ishmael Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006 is the subject of Joel Brouwer's review. Given a full page, Mr Brouwer does a nice job of framing a context for the contentious poet, and quotes enough verse to give a sense of what fuller exposure to Mr Reed's work might be like. Of a passage from "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra," Mr Brouwer writes,

Such a crazy quilt of references can be frustrating - my literature students frequently declare themselves equally bewitched by the poem's sounds and bewildered by its content - but it is an accurate reflection of our multifarious planet, where conflicts between nations, cultures, religions, classes, races and genders are not likely ever to be fully reconciled, but can at least be made less deadly through tolerance of difference. Reed's best poems conjure up a vertiginous, multiplicious, irresolvable and thrilling world. It looks a lot like ours.

Five novels are reviewed this week, and I must say that the reviews are a dispiriting lot. Erica Wagner tries hard to say just why she doesn't like Andrea Lee's Lost Heart in Italy, but conveys nothing more than her own irritability.

But I kept wondering why I was bothering with these people, and why the author kept feeling the need to drive her points, such as they are, home so firmly.


It's possible for a novel - and unfortunately, this is just such a novel - to be both too particular, and not particular enough.

As the literary editor of the Times of London, Ms Wagner ought to have declined this assignment, the tone of which I'm sure that she had settled within the first ten pages of Ms Lee's novel. Terrence Rafferty does even less justice to By A Slow River, by Philippe Claudel (translated by Hoyt Rogers). Everything that he doesn't like about the novel enough to quote it looks to me like the sort of thing that, while it sounds gaseous in English, tends to come naturally to French discourse.

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June 28, 2006

Book Review

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

Now on appearing on Wednesdays.


The novelist Fay Weldon is a gifted writer, but she also works a formula - as do many novelists, even a few at the high end. (Anita Brookner, for example.) She satirizes domestic hypocrisies, and all but mugs along with the story: "Do these people know what they sound like?" Her crazed dénouements are almost easy to swallow, and she never seems to be at risk of falling in love with her characters. What Ms Weldon is not is exploratory: she does not try out different forms. Like the (even more) gifted crime and con specialists, P D James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Donna Leon and Carl Hiaasen, Fay Weldon writes fiction along a well-settled trajectory.

The review of the latest Weldon ought to take this into account: how's the old gal keeing up the franchise? But Ann Hodgman writes as though She May Not Leave were a one-off. None of Ms Weldon's other books is mentioned, nor their existence hinted at. Can it be that Ms Hodgman hasn't encountered Fay Weldon before? It seems hard to believe; Ms Hodgman is a wicked satirist herself. (Does anyone remember the column, published I don't know where [Spy?], in which she actually taste-tested doggy treats?) Instead of placing She May Not Leave in Ms Weldon's oeuvre, she rips off the plot and writes a pretty funny précis. Then she complains. Of the jarring effect of the novel's double ending, she writes,

In a way, this shouldn't matter: in Weldon's universe you're not required to worry about the characters. They're just figures being moved around a fairy-tale landscape. But still!

There's the suggestion of familiarity with the world of Weldon in that sweeping generalization, but the review nonetheless fails to tell me what I want to know: is the book up to form or not?

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June 18, 2006

Book Review

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

Commenting on my Book Review review of two weeks ago, Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing, chided me for being "a person lazy enough to review books by reading reviews of them" and then assured me that I would therefore find "many kindred spirits discussed" in his book. His misunderstanding is worth pointing out: I am not reviewing books here. I am reviewing the reviews that appear in The New York Times Book Review. And the undertaking has proven to be keenly instructive, which is why I devote lovely weekends to the job. (Note to self: consider publishing this piece on Wednesdays.) There are so many, many ways in which to write bad reviews!

It was, therefore, with warmly welcoming arms that I received John Updike's five rules of reviewing, published in a collection of essays, Picking up the Pieces, in 1975. John Freeman, at Critical Mass - a blog maintained by the directors of the National Book Critics' Circle - posted an entry about the rules, to which Updike appended a "vaguer sixth," and links to this entry sprouted like mushrooms. I flatter myself that I've been groping my way toward a very similar set of principles, simply because Mr Updike's rules throw into relief the objections that I have to so many of the reviews that appear in the Review. I paraphrase:

¶ Do not scold writers for failing to write the book that you have in mind.

¶ Quote amply, with at least one long passage. The quality of prose is like any other aesthetic object: it cannot be grasped indirectly. The reviewer's guarantee of great writing is empty; I have to see for myself.

¶ Back up critical judgment with specific quotation.

¶ Do not summarize the book's contents. Repeat: DO NOT SUMMARIZE.

¶ Give examples of books that succeed where, if it be the case, the book at hand fails.

As for the "vaguer sixth," I quote.

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

If these are my objectives whenever I write up a book, they're doubly binding when I review the Review. First, I judge reviews by their light. Then I try to follow them when I write, and to do so scrupulously (and at length) wherever I feel that a book of moment is under discussion.

I bought Mr Lutz's book, of course, but I wish that he'd left an e-mail address so that I could reply more personally. Personal replies will have to wait until I have finished Doing Nothing and can write to him at his publisher, FSG. 

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June 11, 2006

Book Review

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

Back to normal, only better than usual.


Lorraine Adams is so enthusiastic about Julia Glass's Three Junes that I thought I'd better read it, and soon, but the book under review, which received  somewhat less favorable coverage, is The Whole World Over, Ms Glass's new novel. Ms Adams finds that Ms Glass is a fine storyteller who oughtn't to have thought that she needed to pad her novel with lots of dogs and lots of cakes - even if a pastry chef is her principal character.

Glass is too capable to need recipes and four-legged friends to make her fiction a pleasure. It's a tribute to this unassuming but conspicuously talented novelist that even with far too many of them, The Whole World Over so often manages to sing.

What is it about Michel Houellebecq? How does he entrance his reviewers into calling him a genius even though they can't find positive things to say about his work? Stephen Metcalf gives The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd, a bit of information missing from the Review) an absolutely addled review. Here's a snippet:

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June 03, 2006

Book Review

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

Summer Reading

Or so they say. There's nothing particularly summery about this week's books. True, there's a lot of baseball. When is the Times going to move this stuff to the Sports Section? Never, because of the American religious belief that "great baseball writing" validates normal, indoor-oriented literature by providing it with a much-needed masculine toughness. Because I'm such a spoilsport, I can't speak from experience, but I suspect that literary baseball is a transcendent sport now being played on computer keyboards everywhere - and on all of the few surviving typewriters. There is no sign of this infatuation's ever passing to football or tennis. The utter domesticity of baseball really hit me for the first time in, of all places, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Did you notice, too? In any case, while I am going to ignore the Baseball Chronicle (!), I will struggle with the Babe Ruth biography.

What makes me laugh, though, is that baseball is not on the cover. Superman is. Summer Reading = Superman. Who are the editors aiming for?


Eight novels receive full reviews this week, and with one exception they all involve exotic or historical settings. Well, perhaps there is nothing exotic about Italy, where the heroine of Martha McPhee's new novel, L'America, falls in love with a boy from the Italian haute bourgeoisie. Jeff Turrentine gives the book a favorable review, but he spends more time summarizing the decades-long story and doesn't offer many illuminating quotations. He also rather extracurricularly notes that the author is the daughter of "John McPhee, who is arguably American's most famous literary obsessive," by way of suggesting that Ms McPhee may be packing too much detail. I can't call this a bad review, exactly, because it sold the book to me. But it did so pretty cheesily.

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May 28, 2006

Book Review

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

Food Issue

What a nice gift from the editors of the Book Review - a Food Issue! A sprinkling of memoirs, a biography, and books both thoughtful and thoughtless about how we humans have complicated a basic necessity. Throw in a cookbook roundup by Amanda Hesser and a bit of mischievous pastiche by Henry Alford,

Talking about the issue at breakfast with Kathleen, I remarked that food will never be as interesting and consuming to me as it seems to be to most of the people covered in the books at hand. I have absolutely no desire, for example, to work in a professional kitchen: it doesn't seem much different from being a pillaging pirate. And I'm not interested in novelty. I don't want my thoughts and my conversation to be upstaged by what I'm eating. Well, not very often. And what I love most about food is the memories that it can trigger.

Kathleen responded by saying that for me cooking was primarily a matter of control. That put me off at first but I soon saw that she was right. I had taught myself to cook because I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat made the way I wanted it to taste. In other words, I did not want to eat my mother's cooking. My mother did not belong in the kitchen. Given her narrow outlook, it went without saying that men did not belong in her kitchen. By the time I was eleven or twelve, I conceived the possibility that one might eat as well at home as one did at the country-club and grill-room restaurants that we went to every Sunday night. And that remains my culinary program. It's a terrible thing to say, but I cook primarily for myself. And I already know what I like.

The number of cookery books in my library, therefore, is set to decline. I don't peruse the Food Section of the Times anymore, and I find that I'm simply not reading Saveur or Cook's Illustrated. The new (and very much improved) Joy of Cooking, Julia Child's The Way to Cook and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and a very handy Dorling-Kindersley book by Mary Berry and Marlena Spieler, Classic Home Cooking - these books will probably remain mainstays for the rest of my cooking life. 

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May 21, 2006

Book Review

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

All-Fiction Issue

And here I was wondering how I'd missed A O Scott's explication of Book Review project that established Toni Morrison's Beloved as "the best American novel of the last 25 years" - on the strength of fifteen votes, total. Missed it in print, that is, But I didn't miss it: it has been published in today's Review. I've already said what I have to say about that, so we won't be talking about it today, or ever again.

We'll begin, reversing the usual order of things, with the Essay by Rachel Donadio, "Promotional Intelligence." Basically, the essay demonstrates that the publication of literary fiction is very far from the long-tail business that it ought to be. Don't read the essay if you're in the middle of sending out a manuscript. Getting your novel not so much into print as into stores requires pleasing a few gatekeepers, and "Promotional Intelligence" makes it clear that there aren't very many of these. Ms Donadio deserves a modest tut-tut for failing to allude to the machinery of getting fiction reviewed in the Book Review, where typically only one in every three or four (and sometimes more) titles is a work of non-fiction.

So: nothing but novels and short stories! Fifteen titles! Nine of the writers are women; as are ten of the reviewers. What is that about, d'you suppose? A few of the authors are photographed, but most are subjected to caricatures that approach, in André Carrilho's images of Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Peter Carey, the insulting. Overall, it's the worst issues of the Book Review that I can recall.

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May 14, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The lone book of verse reviewed this week is Franz Wright's God's Silence. Langdon Hammer makes Mr Wright out to be someone very unhappy with life on earth, at least in the absence of God.

God keeps silent, but his silence is resonant. Wright hears in it an anticipation of the end of things, an apocalyptic release (desired, not dreaded) from the tragicomic suffering and injustice that is his vision of life in American today.

And there are only two full reviews of novels. Anna Shapiro's Living on Air gets half a page from Kaiama L Glover, who summarizes the book's plot before closing in on its prose.

Unlikability may be the province of all adolescent girls, but Maude's spills over into the narration itself. The result is a novel that in many ways preens and poses as much as its off-puttingly precocious heroine. Like Maude, Shapiro has a bit too much to say about everything...

Adam Begley is a lot more enthusiastic about George Saunders's collection of "stories," In Persuasion Nation. I put scare quotes around "stories" because Mr Saunders seems to me to be creating something new, something that is neither fact nor fiction. His work is more artistic than literary: he compels you to see and to feel very strange things, while inner realities are banal at best, and moral responses are quite rare. I think that Mr Saunders is a genius at doing whatever it is that he does, and I don't share Mr Begley's fear that he "is in danger of becoming a dependable brand name." I'm not sure that Mr Begley is "worried" about anything, either. His essay is good, if brief, literary criticism.

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May 07, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are two books of poetry this week, covered one review largely, it seems, because the poets in question hail from the Atlantic Isles. Neither is English but both live in London now, and Stephen Burt's review is so enthusiastic that I have already ordered one of the books online, Nick Laird's To A Fault. I was not tempted to read the first novel of this former lawyer and current Mr Zadie Smith, but the lines of verse that Mr Burt quotes are irresistible. Why? Because they're in English.

As any Frenchman will tell you, we don't speak English here. We speak American. As a demotic dialect, it is a midden of low-class English, sparked only by the King James Bible, and the flotsam of countless immigrant expressions. It is a patois that always tends to the vague and noncommittal - except where results really matter, in which case it falls back on sports talk. No one wrote readable American until Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and their approach was to succeed by saying as little as possible. Jonathan Franzen is one of the first writers, I believe, to speak in a naturally eloquent American. Our poetry, in contrast, is still too affected, too unlike our ordinary carelessness, to lean on. Beyond Wallace Stevens's serious playfulness and John Ashbery's commitment to inconsequence there is little to recommend American verse.

In the Atlantic Isles, English is inflected only by some Celtic remnants that were assimilated long ago. British xenophobia may be lamentable, but it has kept the language strong. Am I pleading for racial purity here? Hardly. The reverse, if anything. A strong sense of language allows wildly diverse human beings to make sense to one another. American, as a language, is a device for the upkeep of ghettos.

There, I feel better now. The other book, Robin Robertson's Swithering, also sounds good, but not for me, at least if Mr Burt is right:

Their requirements - brevity, clarity, story - permit approaches as different as Robin Robertson's and Nick Laird's: the first stoic, generalizing and compellingly terse; the second loquacious, voluble, able to revel in details.

Mr Burt feels at one point obliged to provide a definition of the word "counterpane." It's quite true that this word is not an item of standard English. But I have always known what it means, because I grew up on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. So should your little ones.

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April 30, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The poetry reviewed in this week's review is by writers established for their work in other genres, but reviewer David Kirby notes that both Mary Karr and Jim Harrison have published several books of poetry before - in Harrison's case, nine of them. Curiously, both of these tough-guy writers have imbued their new collections with an aura of the sacred. The very title of Ms Karr's Sinners Welcome: Poems underscores her discovery of the power of prayer; Mr Kirby claims Hopkins as "her unacknowledged master ... who also used prayer as a booster rocket for poetry rather than a replacement for it." Mr Harrison is a poet of the majestically open American West, and something of a pantheist. The extract from Saving Daylight quoted suggests that he is also attentive to the little failings of his aging body. Mr Kirby leads me to expect that both books will make a hit with readers in search of unsentimental inspiration.

This week's cover story goes to Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, very enthusiastically reviewed by Walter Kirn. Very:

Just unbutton its shirt and let it bare its chest. Like a victorious wrestler, this novel is so immodestly vigorous, so burstingly sure of its barbaric excellence, that simply by breathing, sweating and standing upright it exalts itself.

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April 23, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Before getting down to work today, I have to share a blurb that appears in an ad for Chuck Palahniuk's collection of stories, Haunted, now in paper with a "Glow in the Dark Cover"! The Miami Herald's critic says,

Reading a Palahniuk novel is like getting zipped inside a boxer's heavy bag while the author goes to work on you, pounding you until there is nothing left but a big bag of bones and blood and pain.

I don't think that anything from Ancient Rome equals this debasement of intellect.

We'll begin, as usual, with poetry.

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April 16, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week's must-read unfavorable review is William Logan's dump on The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. Mr Logan finds that "Lehman's catholic taste and appreciation of minor voices make him ill at ease with major ones." One comes away resolved to search Alibris for used copies of this very large volume's trim predecessors, The Oxford Book of American Verse and The New Oxford Book of American Verse.

The dirty secret of American poetry is that until Whitman and Dickinson it was no damn good, and until the modernists it was not good again.

Nell Freudenberger gives David Mitchell's Black Swan Green a very favorable review. It's difficult for me to assess, because I've already read at least two other favorable reviews of this remarkable writer's latest and made up my mind to read it. I don't think, somehow, that Ms Freudenberger would have convinced me. She emphasizes the novel's poetic writing and ghostly preoccupations. Ligaya Mishan makes Duchess of Nothing, a novel by Heather McGowan, sound very tempting, largely by means of quotations that convey the strange music of the narrator's voice: "a giddy version of English unlike any other." Taylor Antrim's review of Katharine Noel's Halfway House, on the other hand, quotes only one sentence, and otherwise rather lazily summarizes the plot. He calls this debut novel "sure-footed." Wyatt Mason's review of Whiteman, also a first novel, by Tony D'Souza, makes me eager to read it, despite its African setting and idealistic protagonist.

One significant virtue of D'Souza's storytelling rests in his ability to present Jack's experiences of African life with a vividness that reveals the continent's allure without sentimentalizing its exoticism.

He also points out that each of the novel's chapters is "a story that could stand on its own." Novels consisting of short stories are a tricky genre; in most cases the form of the story trumps that of the novel. I'm intrigued by Mr Mason's review to see if Whiteman might do better.

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April 09, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Poet Robert Creeley, who died last year, left behind a a "folder of poems" and an essay on Walt Whitman. According to D H Tracy, On Earth: Last Poems and an Essay shows how far Creeley had come from his obstreperous youth (and no farther). Mr Tracy makes the essay on Whitman sound worth reading. "I'm not convinced that Whitman's mind, or any writer's, ever disappears in this fashion, but the essay is not so much an act of persuasion as a way of remaining agonized."

Sharing the page with Mr Tracy's review is Christopher Corbett's enthusiastic review of Emily Barton's Brookland. This novel, which posits the construction of a Brooklyn Bridge long before Roebling's - an outrageous offense upon any decent sense of history and grown-up fact - is definitely not on my list, but Mr Corbett, not as troubled as I am by confusion about the line separating fiction from fantasy, lays out reasons why like-minded readers might enjoy Brookland. That makes for a good review.

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April 02, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry; this week, it's on the cover. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments has prompted a stinging rebuke from Helen Vendler, at The New Republic. Ms Vendler is opposed to publishing "maimed and stunted siblings" of Bishop's best work. David Orr, in the Book Review is almost wildly enthusiastic. "You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop," he begins. Well! Mr Orr's piece is not a book review but an encomium, making arguably extravagant claims for Bishop's verse. It is noted in passing that Alice Quinn, poetry editor at The New Yorker, edited the collection.

Colson Whitehead's is a name that I've heard a lot without, however, hearing anything very tempting. David Gates's review of Apex Hides the Hurt doesn't alter the situation. The review is for the most part a summary of the apparently non-naturalistic novel, and one clogged by comment. It's not at all fun to read. "There happens to be a perfectly good word to characterize Whitehead's enterprise, but to tell you would ruin his ending," writes Mr Gates. If a book's ending could really be ruined by the premature ejaculation of le mot juste, then it's not the enterprise for me. I would say that only a fan of Mr Whitehead would get anything out of this review, but the only thing to get is warm fellow-feeling, not insight.

Liesl Schillinger DOESN'T LIKE Lucy Ellmann's Doctors & Nurses, expressing her annoyance with Ms Ellmann's reliance on capitalized words.

There's no reason an overweight, self-destructive female character can't beguile the reader. ... But Ellmann's readers will have difficulty deciding whether the reaction she wants Jen to provoke is laughter, commiseration, guilt or the gag reflex.

Top marks, Ms Schillinger!

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March 26, 2006

Book Review

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

It has become clear to me that I undertook this weekly review of the Book Review in order to find out what the Review is about. What's it for? Why do people read book reviews, and for whom are they written? What are the elements of a good book review? None of these questions were present to me when I started the feature last fall, but they've emerged as I've paid close regular attention to the publication, reading all of the reviews and not just the ones that interest me.

The principal purpose of a book review, it seems pretty clear, is to provide readers with some idea of what the book under review is like, and there are two reasons why people want this idea. The first, and more innocent, is the search for recommendations. "I'm looking for a book to read; what do you recommend?" I would say that no more than one person in fifty is such a reader. More common, and less innocent, is the search for inside information. "What can I learn about that book without reading it?" This information may or may not be used to enhance such a reader's conversation, but it is acquired with little or no intention of making a purchase. The Book Review allows its readers to stay roughly current with the latest important books - that's the idea, anyway. Defining "important" involves demographic calculations that don't interest me right now; on the whole, I think that the Times does a fairly good job of fulfilling its mission. Bearing in mind that no source of buzz can be comprehensive, the Book Review is a reliable provider of the commodity.

Book reviews have an important afterlife, however, and I often wonder how conscious reviewers are of it. In time, they become historical documents that reflect the Zeitgeist in which they were written. What did people think of Gone With The Wind when it was published? The easiest way to find out is to collect book reviews and seek a consensus. What this research will show, of course, is what professionally literate writers thought of the book, but I think that we can depend on editors to know their markets. Most book reviews that appear in The New York Review of Books would be wildly out of place in the Book Review. They're much longer, for one thing. They're more demanding, and they focus on more demanding books. And they're much less ephemeral than the reviews in the Book Review.

It is important to note the difference between a book review and a book report. Book reports are pedagogical devices designed to test literacy skills, and teachers grade the students who write them, not the writers of the subject books. I fear that many book reviewers, doubtless adepts of the form in elementary school, have not fully realized that grown-up readers are not looking for book reports.

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March 19, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry. Eric McHenry doesn't like Dave Smith's Little Boats, Unsalvaged: Poems 1992-2004.

Immediacy may be what Smith is after, but he achieves very nearly its opposite - a halting, stilted speech that substitutes accumulation for arc, a sort of rhythmless repetitiveness for the "sentence-sounds" that mattered so much to Robert Frost. "A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung." Frost wrote. "You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between two trees, but - it is bad for the clothes.

That's a lovely image, Frost's is, and I'm grateful for the encounter. Mr McHenry does exploit his bad review of Dave Smith as an occasion to say some very nice things about the poetry of the late William Matthews.

David Orr, in "On Poetry," deplores the proliferation of poetry prizes. I'm not sure that I understand the full measure of his words, but I like this:

With the fading of transcendent ideals in certain areas of American life comes the inevitable fading of the dream of unsullied, undying art - and the nostalgic desire for prizes that remind us of that dream, if nothing else.

The occasion for Mr Orr's essay is a "Neglected Master Award," concocted by, among others, the Library of America. The first volume in this series (itself an award of sorts) goes to Samuel Menashe. The bit of verse that's quoted in the essay is very attractive indeed. Mr Orr notes that Mr Menashe belongs to the "austere Dickinsonian school."

There are seven novels this week. Collectively, the views make me wonder if there's a point to writing up novels just because they're new. Each of the reviews is more book report than critique, and each of them fails to quote enough original text for a reader of the Book Review to assess the novelist's command of sentence-sounds. Sam Lipsyte (author of Home Land) really likes Chris Abani's Becoming Abigail: A Novella, but instead of showing us why, he falls back on sketching the novella's (grim) story. Megan Marshall's review of A Million Nightingales, by Susan Straight, is equally enthusiastic and a little less lame in that it appraises Ms Straight's grasp of the race and gender issues that naturally rise in a story about a light-colored slave girl in antebellum Louisiana.

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March 12, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are six novels and two books of poetry this week. The poets are Louise Glück and Harvey Shapiro, and they're both enthusiastically reviewed by Nicholas Christopher and David Barber, respectively. I'm not very familiar with either poet, but it would seem that they don't have much in common beyond the English language. In The Sights Along the Harbor, Mr Shapiro offers a "ledger" of brief but dense observation. In Averno, Ms Glück plumbs the Greek myths, particularly that of Persephone, to

take us where we don't want to go and bring us back as we never were before. Reminding us, too, that illumination is often accompanied by disillusionment, and that the spiritual awakening which allows us to see more clearly may well leave us in despair.

Two novels get strong reviews. Boris Fishman hails James Meek's The People's Act of Love as a "richly informed and imagined" novel about a remote Russian town in 1919, where true believers of different persuasions converge in "a suspenseful page turner." (This sounds like Louise Glück material, because I certainly don't want to go there.) Gary Kamiya likes Music From Big Pink: A Novella, by John Niven. Did you know that the publisher Continuum has launched a series of small books about "seminal" rock albums? Mr Niven's contribution is unusual in being fictional. He creates the character of a small-time drug dealer and insinuates him into the taping sessions; the only member of The Band who's fully drawn is its pianist, Richard Manuel (a good choice from the liability standpoint because he hanged himself in 1986). "What Music From Big Pink is really about," Mr Kamiya writes, "is loss." As in loss of youth, that ingredient essential to most mass culture.

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March 05, 2006

Book Review

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

Before tackling this week's Review, I'd like to direct your attention to a comment at the bottom of last week's piece. Debra Galant, author of Rattled, suggested that I give her book another chance, and I yielded at once. I have already begun Rattled, which I bought yesterday. So far, it's very entertaining. Of the status-obsessed "heroine," Heather Peters, Ms Galant wickedly writes, "All she wanted was a fair advantage." If you were reading in a hurry, you'd miss it.

All right; fun's over.

Continue reading "Book Review" »

February 25, 2006

Book Review

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


Ten novels are covered this week, five of them in Gregory Cowles's Fiction Chronicle. You decide.

The Fugitive Wife, by Peter C Brown. A Minnesota farm wife leaves her husband for the Alaskan gold rush at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. "In the end, Brown's impressive debut is less about the search for gold than the search for self."

Whale Season, by H M Kelby. A writer of two high-minded novels about mercy and nuclear physics, takes  holiday in Hiaasen country. "By insistently dressing her story in empty religious imagery, from a resurrection to a vision of the Virgin Mary, she comes off as the good student who has finally ventured out to a frat party, only to spend all night talking about her favorite class.

Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love: Stories, by Dan Rhodes. A hit in England. "The 34-year-old Rhodes plainly has talent to burn, but in these stories he generates more smoke than fire. Considering his ample gifts, it's a shame to discover he's taken the book's title to heart.

Paradise Travel, by Jorge Franco (translated by Katherine Silver). An illegal alien from Columbia spends a year tracking down the girlfriend from whom he was separated on his first night in New York. The hero "never loses his faith in the mysterious, larcenous Reina or the power of his love for her. His purity and his tough-tender voice, ably preserved by Katherine Silver's translation, give Franco's novel its own kind of magic.

Year of Fire, by David H Lynn. Nineteen stories by the editor of the Kenyon Review. "Many of Lynn's characters are uncertain and adrift: secular, multiracial or just reliably tolerant, they have shed their labels and consequently have no clear sense of who they are until somebody asks them to change."

Of the remaining five, there's a revealing imbalance. The review of Strivers Row, the third installment of Kevin Baker's series, City of Fire, has everything: an author shot, an illustration, and four columns of type by - Pete Hammill. Clearly this historical novel about Harlem in the Forties, juxtaposing an imagined Malcolm X and a fictional pastor who contemplates "passing," is Important. For the most part, Mr Hamill summarizes the novel and then wraps things up with "a brave, honorable work, taking us into a vanished world that should be better known." The routine piety is anything but seductive. Nor did the review of Purity of Blood make want to read Arturo Pérez-Reverte's new novel, itself the second in a series of novels about the Spain of Philip IV (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), despite the author shot, illustration, and three columns of print - by Terrence Rafferty. There's a bit more analysis here, but there's also a lot of "real men, men's men, macho men." That's really too much stink.

This is hokum of an exceptionally high order - the masculine pathos of having done too much violence for too meager a reward - and for those of us susceptible to this particular strain of boys' book post-bellum tristesse, Purity of Blood is a wonderful, stirring entertainment.

On what appears to be the distaff side, Elizabeth Schmidt's two-column review of Elizabeth Nunez's Prospero's Daughter appears just inside the back cover of the Review, where the editors like to place books that are quirky enough to discourage all but the most determined readers. Prospero's Daughter retells the Bard's sublime story of shipwreck and deserted island in a way "that is inspired by Shakespeare, but not beholden to him. Ms Schmidt notes the apparently extensive library of fictions and criticisms inspired by The Tempest, but makes no effort to convey the flavor of the book. We're told that the Caliban figure is here at the center, and that the Prospero stand-in is a genuine madman. The review is a genuine dud.

Dana Spiotta's new novel, Eat the Document, is already in my pile, so I read Julia Scheeres's review without any expectation of guidance. It is a favorable review, criticizing only a "collage of viewpoints" (there are four principal characters, but only one fully-developed one). I am particularly eager to read Ms Spiotta's "glorious sendup of contemporary social and ecological activists with all their preening idealism and absurdity." I did, however, detect more than a trace of anti-Sixties impatience in Ms Sheeres's paragraphs.

Sharing the page is Ann Hodgman's review of Rattled, a novel by Debra Galant, who contributes to the New Jersey pages of The New York Times. I suppose the editors thought that the common theme of suburban antics justified short-shrifting Ms Spiotta's doubtlessly more serious novel. Rattled, according to Ms Hodgman, is long on plot but short on character - a failing that one often finds in novels by professionals fictionalizing their subjects.  

Tally: the boys are given lots of space in which to say that they like the other boys' writing, while the girls are given half the space to critique the other girls.


There is one very interesting-looking title in this week's review. Just one. It's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, by Matthew Stewart. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger tells us the very engaging fact that Mr Stewart, having cashed in nicely on a management consultant firm, has retired to pursue a life of contemplation. Spinoza publicly cast off the belief in an intervening Creator at a time when it was dangerous to do so; he was excommunicated by the Jewish community at Amsterdam. The younger Leibniz, according to Mr Steward, shared Spinoza's lack of faith but lacked the courage to profess it. His hedging is very much with us today. Ms Schillinger writes,

Spinoza's mighty Nature may have been God enough for Einstein, but it was not enough for Leibniz, and it doesn't satisfy the proponents of intelligent design or those who put service of God above service to man.

Nicely put! Thanks for the opportunity to assert, not for the first time, that putting the service of God above the service of man is a perversion of humanity.

As for the rest - do I have to? Assigning The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart and Imposter: How George W Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by Bruce Bartlett to George F Will for review will certainly fascinate those who, like the Kremlinologists of old, read the tea-leaves at the Times to decrypt its political leanings, but it does not make for a very interesting review. Mr Hart's book is "a relaxed amble," while "Sometimes Bartlett is a tad too robust." Quick! A tonic for the wilting Mr Will! One would have said that the reviewer was all too much at home in this territory to be fair and balanced about it.

My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope appears to be L Paul Bremer III's attempt to salvage his career from the imputation of incompetence. Dexter Filkins, a Baghdad correspondent for the Times, insists that the imputation can only be washed away by something much darker. Of Mr Bremer's assertion that he and General Richard Sanchez knew how desperately unmanned US forces were in Iraq, and that they asked for reinforcements that were denied, Mr Filkins writes,

By staying silent, Bremer ensured that there would be no public debate on the merits of deploying more American troops. By staying silent, he helped ensure that there would be little public discussion over the condition of the Iraqi security forces, whose quality he doubted. When his request for more troops was ignored, his silence helped ensure that the troops would never come.

A pox of L Paul Bremer III.

Jennifer Egan gets enough space (starting on the cover) to cannibalize Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia into a nice little essay of her own. Ms Gilbert's trip "was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write." This inspires me to plan in doing the same for my forthcoming A Year in the Seizième, if and when the blog book deal thing ever happens to me. Charisma - mine or that of Paris - will not be much of a topic, but I will grant Ms Egan's wish:

And while I wouldn't begrudge this massively talented writer a single iota of joy or peace, I found myself more interested, finally, in the awkward, unresolved stuff she must have chosen to leave out.

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, by Joanna Kavenna, is enthusiastically reviewed by Florence Williams, a contributing editor at Outside. How bored would I have to be to pick up this myth-inspired travelogue through the Northern Hemisphere's chilly and deserted wastes? I don't want to know. William T Vollmann's contribution to the Great Discoveries Series (published by WW Norton and Atlas Books), Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and "The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, looks daunting in Dava Sobel's review, but then my regard for Ms Sobel is not particularly extensive. (I found Longitude, her book about John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, all husk and no germ.) Mr Vollmann, of whom I really hadn't heard much before he took the National Book Award for fiction last year, seems to be a dark writer from a sunny place. I suppose that I shall give Mr Vollmann a try. I picked up Europe Central at Shakespeare & Co and was nearly knocked down by its fussiness. I've read one of the Great Discoveries, Madison Smartt Bell's smashingly good Lavoisier in the Year One, and am working on David Leavitt's book about Alan Turing.

Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve, by Sandra M Gilbert, is, reviewer Thomas Lynch tells us, comparable to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in "plumbing her own grief for what links it to the larger human predicament of death and mourning," but it is a much longer, and more extensively bibliographical book, weighing in at near six hundred pages. Mr Lynch agrees  with Ms Gilbert that the "closure" business is phooey, and he notes that memorial services have become "peculiarly cheerful." In my experience, mourning is not something that anyone does in the same way twice; each mourned loss is unique. As for Mr Lynch's salvo,

"Sex and the dead," William Butler Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear nearly 80 years ago, are the only two topics that "can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind."

I could not more emphatically disagree.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a truly sympathetic review of John McGahern's All Will Be Well: A Memoir, and that is no surprise. Mr McGahern is widely admired for his ability to bring Ireland palpably alive on the page, and Mr Klinkenborg shares his interest in the natural world.

For McGahern, daily rourtine is the root of our being, the arena of our noticing. It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness.

It is very agreeable to live in the country and to submit to those "episodic rhythms," especially if you're a writer. But for me the ontological glow doesn't glimmer until the bed has actually been made and the shopping unpacked. I always suspect men who write piously of housework that they don't really do enough of it to know what kind of a religion it really is.

Sally Satel, a physician attached to the American Enterprise Institute (more tea-leaves) begins her review of Harry Bruinius's Better for the All the World: The Secret Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity by pointing out that this history has not been secret for a very long time, if it ever was. It is, rather, a story that the Holocaust rendered deeply embarrassing. Just reading about it, however, is a useful reminder of how extensive and even progressive ideas of ethnic cleansing were at the turn of the last century. On the whole, Dr Satel prefers Daniel Kevles's "more substantial study" of 1985, In The Name of Eugenics.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Better Friedan's Enduring Mystique," is a good assessment of Friedan's achievement, noting especially that her famous book had more in common with baleful social reports from the 1950s such as William Whyte's The Organization Man than it did with subsequent feminist writers. What prompted Friedan and Whyte and many others to write was the ghoulish lifelessness of "good living" in the postwar era. The essay is illustrated by a photograph of Friedan wearing the most peculiar dress. Did she often go in for the Mme Récamier look?

February 18, 2006

Book Review

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

We break from practice this weekend to begin with the reviews that face each other at the center of this weeks' Book Review. New York is very much the subject here, and, as is so often the case, the truth is stranger than the fiction. The fiction is Jay McInterney's The Good Life, reviewed by Paul Gray as unfavorably as one has come to expect. Poor Mr McInerney! Whether he's trapped in an Eighties Zeitgeist by his own sensibility or by the critics who won't let him live down is bad-boy party animal days, he still ought to have foreseen where bringing together his adulterous couple in a 9/11 soup kitchen at Bowling Green would land him. Here is the nub of Mr Gray's review.

Corinne and Luke apparently deserve attention because they move in circles that sometimes intersect with those of the famous, occasionally even those of the ultra-cool one-name variety. "Salman" cancels at the last minute from the Calloway dinner party. A director who does show up regales a "rapt" table with tales of "me and Marty and Peter and the gang" back in Hollywood in the 1970's. Corinne and Russell attend a book party at "Nan's" and "Gay's" townhouse. When Sasha McGavock requires a frock for a society benefit, "Oscar" provides.

Perhaps recognizing that readers able to fill in these last names don't add up to the sort of numbers that produce best sellers, McInerney gilds such glitter by throwing in a steady stream of brand names, arcane and familiar, to attract the demographic of inveterate shoppers.

Attorney Edward Hayes would probably not only be able to "fill in these last names" but claim to be on retainer from some of them. The celebrity defense attorney and rough diamond, immortalized by Tom Wolfe (who supplies an introduction) in The Bonfire of the Vanities, has enlisted Susan Lehman to patch together his memoirs, in Mouthpiece: A Life in - and Sometimes Just Outside - the Law. Former Book Review editor Charles McGrath gives Mouthpiece a jittery review. After summarizing some of Mr Hayes's more provocative opinions about how the world works, he writes,

Some of this may be slightly put on, to get a rise out of liberal, middle-class readers, but the disquieting thing about this otherwise engaging book is that it eventually suggests that the Hayesian philosophy might be more accurate than many liberal, middle-class readers would like to believe. That almost anybody can be bought is the apparent lesson of the book's most interesting section, which describes on of the few times when Hayes has found himself in over his head.

[That would be when he represented the estate of Andy Warhol.] In addition to sharing Manhattan topography, both books appear to cover really well-made suits, and neither review is a heavyweight. Now, back to normal.


In addition to The Good Life, six novels are reviewed this week. Two look interesting. White Ghost Girls, by Alice Greenway, is a spare novel set in Hong Kong during the Vietnam war that tells of the moral awakening of the daughter of a Time magazine photographer. Vendela Vida writes, "Greenway employs brevity and marmoreal prose, trusting the reader to fill in the relevant facts - something many first-time novelists lack the courage to do." In Company, Max Barry has written an unsparing novel set in Seattle. According to Douglas Coupland, it's a spot-on satire of soul-sucking cubicle life.

OK, we all know that corporate culture and jargon are easy targets, as are self-improvement programs and management systems. But it takes an accomplished social anthropologist from the schools of both Dilbert and Evelyn Waugh to make topics like outsourcing, mission statements and HR come alive, breathe fire and then vomit all over your in-basket.

The picture of Stephen Wright that is run twice, small- and medium-sized, in the Book Review shows him wearing a Yankees cap and three piercings. I understand that this is immaterial to his skill as a writer, but it's mighty off-putting. I read Meditations in Green years ago but have read nothing by Mr Wright since. The Amalgamation Polka, his new novel about a young man named Liberty who enlists on the Union side at the outbreak of the Civil War. Laura Miller's enthusiastic review celebrates Mr Wright's powerfully disorienting storytelling but leaves me feeling more than ever the truth of Susan Sontag's conceit of Manhattan as an ocean liner berthed at an American dock.

"Is it the climate," a British character asks of Liberty's countrymen, "some quickening agent in the air, sense you all mooning helplessly through the woods, scavenging for God in every tree, paradise behind every rock?" There's something absurd about conceiving of a nation in terms of a morality so prone to drastic reversals and inversions. For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads.

I am very tired of this sort of writing - of this kind of thinking. In another historical novel, Steven Heighton's Afterlands, we're taken on an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole in 1871. Bruce Barcott hails it as "magnificent."

Heighton extrapolates from historical accounts of the crew's six-and-a-half-month journey aboard the ice floe to create a sophisticated, densely-layered fictional exploration of survival, love, betrayal and the personal cost of history.

Which reminds me that I have got to read Moby-Dick.

Tom Shone reviews Utterly Monkey without mentioning that author Nick Laird is married to Zadie Smith. That's good. Even better, he faults Mr Laird for pursuing a high-octane plot (blowing up the Bank of England) when it is clear that the writer is "more at ease with the threat of violence than the thing itself." This novel carries a lot of personal warning flags - I try very hard to read nothing about the Irish Troubles, or about the difficulties that Northern Irishmen encounter in London. Utterly Monkey appears to be well-written, however, so perhaps I'll give it a try. What I will not try is Maile Meloy's A Family Daughter. As Jeff Giles, notes, Ms Meloy's first novel, Liars and Saints, was accorded gushing praise from the moment it appeared. You can read what I thought about it here - on the understanding that I probably wouldn't be so generous today. Mr Giles writes,

Despite Meloy's drab, if efficient prose - and I'd suggest there's a difference between good writing an the absence of bad writing - A Family Daughter veers perilously close to the soap-operatic at times.

Been there, &c.


The most serious review this week is Leon Wieseltier's critique of Daniel C Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; the piece also raises a serious question about the Book Review's editorial judgment. Mr Wieseltier's essay is eloquent, and it highlights at least one interesting weakness in Mr Dennett's deconstruction of the religious impulse; I'm grateful to have been able to read it. But perhaps the review would have seemed less inappropriate in The New Republic, where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor. I cannot see any constructive point in the Times' having assigned a book by an aggressive atheist to a writer who piously respects religious wisdom even if he does not quite believe in it. Predictably, Mr Wieseltier has nothing good to say about Breaking the Spell, and he says it very well.

Here is a passage from Breaking the Spell:

Like other animals, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal. But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. This fact does make us different. But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.

As Mr Wieseltier observes, it is unreasonable to look to natural science - the best method that we have so far of analyzing the world we live in - to explain our transcendence. If our transcendence is explicable in terms of natural science, it is per se not transcendence. It is clear that Mr Wieseltier and Mr Dennett do not understand "humanism" to be the same thing. In the present context, however, the disagreement doesn't mean very much. It can be meaningful to those who have read Breaking the Spell and considered its arguments, not as Mr Wieseltier picks them, but as Mr Dennett lays them out. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, far from serving the general reader as a helpful reviewer, Mr Wieseltier has been commissioned to discredit the book in a way that will prevent full consideration of its propositions. I don't mean that Mr Wieseltier ought to have written otherwise. I do mean that the Book Review ought not to have published it.

Kevin Baker praises the latest book about Abraham Lincoln. 

In Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, the British historian Richard Carwardine makes it refreshingly clear from his title on that he is more interested in Lincoln the politician. It's not that Lincoln's political abilities have escaped notice. Most recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, told the overdue story of how Lincoln, as president, was able to mold the oversize, contentious personalities in his cabinet into a remarkably effective unit. But Carwardine provides a more comprehensive study of how an essentially good man could gain and wield power, even in scoundrel time.

Mr Baker has no use, however, for Lincoln in The Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, edited by David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer. Mr Baker is amazed that the editors have contrived to omit the role played by the newspaper's founder, Henry J Raymond, in the notorious draft riots of 1863. (Raymond "stood down" the mob with Gatling guns position in the newsroom windows.)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age gets a largely favorable review from Francine du Plessix Gray. Ms Gray likes the Consuelo parts and thinks that the Alva parts are too long. It would have been nicer to have a book focused solely on the daughter, who was married off to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 and left him twenty-five years later for the love of her life. 

Surmounting most obstacles through her innate intelligence and self-discipline, abandoning the harsh glitter of her life as a peer's wife for the pure gold of her happiness with a man she chose to love, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan left an ineffable legacy of style and grace that Stuart narrates with an elegance equal to her subject's.

Mother Alva, however, is more problematic, and what warrants her inclusion in the book is the progressive thinking that she instilled in her daughter. That she could regard marrying her daughter to a rather unprepossessing duke as "progressive" goes some way to explaining Ms Gray's judgment of her character: "quick-witted, endlessly self-publicizing and diabolically ambitious."

A far less functional parent-child relationship is the subject of Bernard Cooper's The Bill From My Father: A Memoir. As reviewer Norah Vincent suggests, "bill" may have a double meaning. First of all, it refers to the grotesque bill for two million dollars in payment of parental service rendered with which lawyer Edward Cooper presented his son. But it may also refer to the writer's unavoidable struggle to understand such a parent. But Ms Vincent doubtless unintentionally strikes this book from my list when she concludes,

The bond, though contentious, is inescapable, and in mapping its tortuous contours, Cooper has produced a nuanced, pained portrayal of how - and often how awkwardly - men love.

On the evidence of Ada Calhoun's review of A Plea for Eros: Essays, Siri Hustvedt is one of the most insufferable women on the planet. "Unfortunately, much of this book suggests a similar lack of engagement with the real world."

And Hustvedt's tales about her Norwegian-Lutheran childhood and New York adulthood have punch lines that don't so much land as waft down in a billow of gauze. Her clincher, about a drunken bum, has a familiar premise. He props himself up on his elbow for just one reason: he wants to tell her that he finds her beautiful.

There are five reviews in Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle.

The Film Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge, by David Kamp with Lawrence Levi. Ms McKelvey primarily notes this treatise's terseness; both writers "have burnished the 28-word and under profile to a sheen." Sounds undernourishing.

Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, by Anna Politkovskaya and translated by Arch Tait. The reviewer hails the writer as "a master at depicting horror and suffering" and concludes, "The more Westerners know about Putin's Russia, the better. I'm afraid, however, that dismissing Vladimir Putin as a KGB thug is a dangerous underassessment.

I Hit It Under The Sheets: Growing Up With Radio, by Gerald Eshkenazi. So much for sportswriting:

Woody Allen (Radio Days) and Stanley Elkin (The Dick Gibson Show), among others, have mined this material. Yet Eshkenazi, who writes about sports for The New York Times, isn't in their league; his writing is flat, the book's structure is disjointed and he seems to have done surprisingly little research, relying instead on a static-y memory..."

¶ Confessions of a Wall Street Analyst: A True Story of Inside Information and Corruption in the Stock Market, by Dan Reingold with Jennifer Reingold. This revenge fantasy come true runs out of steam when its villain, Jack Grubman, resigns in disgrace from Smith Barney.

Time Bites: Views and Reviews, by Doris Lessing. What is this book doing in a roundup? Lessing is one of the great writers, and her nonfiction deserves less perfunctory treatment. It is hard to say just what Ms McKelvey thinks of the collection.

Finally, there are two sporting books this week. One of these days, I'm going to have to decide whether to continue covering reviews of books of which I can scarcely understand the existence. I'm told that some of the best prose in English is sportswriting, but this is not much different, to my mind, from praising the cinematography of an adult sex film. For the moment, I'll simply say that boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar likes Barney Ross, Douglas Century's biography of a popular lightweight boxer who emerged from the Chicago ghetto in the late Twenties and whose career illuminates the diverse ethnic aspect of boxing prior to Joe Louis's reduction of the matter to black and white. As for John Feinstein's Last Dance: Behind the Scenes of the Final Four, weren't we just remarking on Joseph Nocera's rough review of the sportswriter's last book? Why yes, on 4 December! Jay Jennings doesn't think much of the new one, calling it "particularly shoddy" and suggesting that this be not only Mr Feinstein's last "Last" book but his last book period. Sports occupies the final-page Essay. Keith Gessen's title, "In Search of the Great American Hockey Novel," speaks for itself. Apparently, ice hockey is endearing in no small part because its fans tend toward the shambolic. 

February 12, 2006

Book Review

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


Don't miss Alexandra Jacobs's smart review of Jackie Collins's latest sashweight, Lovers & Players. It's very funny and all of a piece, and its best bits must be read in context. The only line that I could extract was the statement that Ms Collins "lives in Beverly Hills and continues to embody its moneyed, soulless 1980's ethos in perpetuity, as if pickled in a vat of Giorgio perfume." I don't mind that the Book Review deigns to notice Lovers & Players, so long as the writing is as biting as this. On the other end of the enthusiasm scale is Ben Marcus's encomium to Deborah Eisenberg's collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes. Mr Marcus succeeds without trying at making Ms Eisenberg's characters sound repellent and her stories unintelligible. Still wondering just what it was that Mr Marcus was trying to say in his noted anti-Franzen piece in Harper's last fall, I suppose that this review is to be read as part of a developing literary theory.

Pankaj Mishra favorable review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss concludes with a bit of waffling.

This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need t agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

Vision or reality? Ms Desai apparently takes a grim view of globalization, multiculturalism, and other trends that writes such as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru extol. She sees them as merely furthering the humiliation of the less-than-fortunate. I'd have expected Mr Mishra, who has written highly nuanced fictional and nonfictional accounts of the West's impact on India, to take a clearer stand on Ms Desai's pessimism. Equally hard to assess is Dan Chiasson's favorable review of Justin Tussing's The Best People in the World. On the one hand, he finds that Mr Tussing is a virtuoso of factual description. On the other, he observes, "His characters try really hard to remember to notice small shifts in one another's moods ... but they're really much more interested in the aeronautical trade magazines strewn around the house or the proper way to make your own firecrackers." I seem to recall that Mr Tussing published a memorable story in The New Yorker in which, as in his new novel, an adolescent runs off with his high-school teacher; the story was evidently an excerpt from the novel. Mr Chiasson does not persuade me that I'll benefit from the longer version. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman, gets a good review from Chelsea Cain. Ms Cain reminds us that Ms Waldman has admitted - in the Book Review, no less - to loving her husband, writer Michael Chabon, more than she loves her children. She also claims that Ms Waldman has something "new and interesting" to say about "women, families and love." Too bad she labels it a work of "chick-lit."

The one novel that stands out this week thanks to a favorable review is Olympia Vernon's A Killing In This Town. Maud Casey doesn't say just when this Jim Crow-era novel is set, but perhaps that's not important. The graphically portrayed brutalization of independent-minded blacks by fledgling Klansmen sounds almost unreadable, but that is undoubtedly the reason why A Killing In This Town must be read.


For the most part, this week's nonfiction reviews make me want to crawl back into bed in search of an alternative to reading. I really do not see the point, for example, of either Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence, or Noah Feldman's full-age review.

In the long run, the only way to cut off the international jihadi movement at the root is for Muslins to conclude that their own religious tradition does not countenance the deviations of recent years.

What a startlingly unhelpful judgment! I begin to associate Mr Feldman with pious hopes. Gary J Bass likes Jonathan B Tucker's War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda, but the issue of toxic-gas stockpiles, while sobering-to-horrific, seems dependent on other problems that must be solved first, such as the accountability of office-holders generally and the presence of George W Bush in the White House in particular. No less appalling is the subject of Rebecca Lemov's World as Laboratory: Experiments With Mice, Mazes and Men. This grisly account of attempts to alter human behavior by "scientific" means is almost humorously stuffed with crackpot ideas. Not so crackpot, but just as heartless is David Brooks's  grand conservative inference.

What is nefarious is the assumption - and this is where the tradition Lemov describes is indeed very much alive - that in the most important realms of life, human beings respond in uniform ways to material stimuli. [Fair enough.] In this view, humans are not the authors of their own lives, or are not influenced by mystical and unknowable forces, which we call the soul. [Where are we going here?] This materialistic determinism undergirds the work of thousands of economists, wonks and social experts who believe that [Aha!] poverty can be understood primarily as material deprivation and has nothing to do with cultural or behavioral factors; who believe that education can be improved merely by pouring in more money, as if a child were a machine to be filled up with the right investments; who discount cultural explanations for why some societies thrive and some stagnate. [Ergo: abolish welfare and other support for culturally-driven layabouts, completely overlooking the damage done by slavery to that culture.]

This is why I call Mr Brooks "Foxy Dave." He's very clever and must be watched closely.

There are two books about British-American relations. In American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror, Con Coughlin tries to explain his prime minister's seemingly self-destructive attachment to Bushist foreign policy; in Jonathan Freedland's view, Mr Coughlin does not succeed. German journalist Josef Joffe thinks somewhat better of Chris Patten's anti-neocon "cri de coeur," Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a New Century. The author, Hong Kong's last British governor, is about as representative of the United Kingdom's establishment as one can be, and according to Mr Joffe he writes very well.

Patten's is also a brilliantly catty and nicely constructed text - so felicitous in its language and subtle in its jabs that one wishes for a bit more Oxbridge in America's top schools. If back in college they had been obliged to deliver two essays per week, American mandarins might sound more like Patten and less like PowerPoint. In Oxford, they teach you not only to write well but also to think beyond the talking points of the day, and this is why the standard prejudices of the Good European do not overwhelm his intelligence, erudition and wit.

Amen! Jim Holt finishes off his review of Darrin M McMahon's Happiness: A History with a pithy quote that also finishes off any desire to read the book in question. After summarizing Mr McMahon's disgruntled account of happiness through the ages, Mr Holt recalls a quotation the attribution of which seems, unfortunately, to have been garbled by an editor: "A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied." Indeed.

Let's hope that Karenna Gore Schiff has written more of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America that John F Kennedy wrote of Profiles in Courage. I expect she has. Alexandra Starr oddly sees fit to identify only five of Ms Schiff's subjects, and the only interesting thing that I learned from her review was that FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, and Mexican-American labor organizer Dolores Huerta both found it useful to project themselves maternally. I'm going to have to find about this book from some other source.

Curtis Sittenfeld's Essay, "You Hate Me, You Really Hate Me," is about the writer's visits to book clubs, something that more and more writers are doing. Surprise: she doesn't like it when readers hate the protagonist of her novel, Prep. "Such varied reactions make for lively debate, and I wouldn't want to stifle it, but I have no desire to be present for it, either." -There are apparently two recent novels with quasi-satirical book-club scenes, The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum, and Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. Must keep my eyes out.

January 29, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

We have nine novels this week, five of them in Etelka Lehoczky's Fiction Chronicle. Good reviews go to

The Bird is a Raven, by Benjamin Lebert and translated by Peter Constantine. Mr Lebert is something of a prodigy, having published his first novel in his teens. Now 23, he gives us a conversation between strangers on a train. "Lebert explores the limits of trust, blending broad humor and sudden bursts of melodrama while maintaining a sense of delicately balanced tension." Sounds good.

Billie Morgan, by Joolz Denby. The memoir of a fictional "aging biker babe" in the North of England. "Denby's other characters aren't as full-fleshed as Billie," writes Ms Lehoczky - but why should they be, in a memoir? - "but she's got enough personality to carry the novel." Given my interest in motorcycles and their owners, this is a novel that I would read only if commanded to do so by a very close relative.

Becoming Strangers, by Louise Dean. This is about a bad vacation, centering two couples at a luxury resort in the Caribbean. One of the four principals is dying of cancer and in search of some meaning. Like this character, Ms Lehoczky writes, the author "never quite finds deeper meaning. But Becoming Strangers is still a diverting trip.

Not-so-favorable reviews go to

Against Gravity, by Farnoosh Moshiri. Ms Lehoczky doesn't say what this novel is about, but she hates the characters even as she finds them unbelievable. The author "shares their belief that their extraordinary experiences make them interesting people."

Time Won't Let Me, by Bill Scheff. Mr Scheff is a columnist at Sports Illustrated, which is not a plus. His book could be about people I knew - prep school friends who formed a successful garage band in 1965, cutting an album before the inevitable breakup. (If there's anybody else out there who remembers Davy and the Badmen, please holler!) Now approaching sixty, the four old friends decide to stage a comeback - hugely embarrassing their children. Ouch.

Liesl Schillinger calls Olga Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov "subtle and vertiginous." I think that's good. The novel is about the downfall of a hack art critic as the dissolution of the Soviet Union approaches. Instructed by higher-ups to write an essay praising Marc Chagall, Ms Grushin's protagonist balks, suspecting a trick that will lead to his deportation. But it is not a trick, and, soon out of a job, Sukhanov falls prey to the radioactivity of his years of self-serving dishonesty. I'm going to read this book. I may also read Christmas in Paris 2002, by Ronald K Fried. According to reviewer Charles Wilson, this is a dismantling à la Balzac of pampered American lives, with an appealing Parisian setting. Also appealing is Joe Keenan's third novel, My Lucky Star. Fans of the first two, the side-splitting Blue Heaven and the somewhat less hilarious Putting on the Ritz will rejoice to hear that Gilbert Selwyn is still up to no good and still dragging Philip Cavanaugh and Clair Simmons into frightful imbroglios - this time, in Hollywood. Goodness, the possibilities! Reviewer Mark Kamine files a few complaints, but that won't stop me. I'll just wait for the QPBC edition.

Nothing in Blake Bailey's review of Over the Rainbow? Hardly: Collected Short Seizures, a collection of the late prose of Chandler Brossard (1922-93) edited by Steven Moore, nothing in this review suggests that its subject is a book that I would enjoy reading. Brossard Who Walk in Darkness, published in French before it appeared in English, has been hailed as "a pioneering work of Beat fiction." The present miscellany, which includes pornographic parodies of fairy tales, seems eminently missable. Mr Bailey concludes,

It's like listening to a lonely man mumbling to himself - and loneliness, it seems was very much to the point. "I've never felt comfortable with other people at all," Brossard admitted toward the end of his life. And so perhaps he kept company with the voices in his head, his various babbling personae, and wrote it all down for the benefit of some possible kindred soul.


The big story this week is Garrison Keillor's emphatically unfavorable review of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville, by Bernard-Henri Lévy and translated by Charlotte Mendel. Nearly every sentence in Mr Keillor's put-down is sarcastic, and much of it is funny. Be sure to read it. But don't let it dissuade you from reading American Vertigo, which is a lively look at the United States by a sympathetic outsider. Mr Keillor would seem to have been hand-picked to misunderstand BHL's assessment of what's distinctive about American culture; the writer and radio star has built a career on preferring the mundane. (Repeat after me: bay-ahsh-ell, and try not to say "béchamel.") I am going to read this book in French, when the "original" appears in a couple of months.

Another book on my list is Eric Foner's Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. This enormously sad book is about the mangled and untrue account of Reconstruction with which America salved its post-Reconstruction conscience, largely by falling back on the idea that the former slaves were not fully-developed human beings. James Goodman's review is almost as sad:

Four decades and untold political abuse later, our federal government is again held in low esteem. Many wonder if it is even competent to do what it used to do best: wage war. I would like to think that the prejudice at the heart of the old history of Reconstruction would prevent its revival. But as long as Americans continue to see government simply as a problem, we won't know much, or care, about Reconstruction.

There are a few books about Conservative America. Donald T Critchlow's Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade appears, in Judith Warner's view, to have been written by a camp-follower. Like Betty Friedan, I'd like to see Ms Schlafly burned at the stake for her opposition to ERA and other initiatives, but I acknowledge that this is a grudging way to respect her importance. I would much rather see Ms Schlafly lose her audience. Adrian Wooldridge gives Richard Reeves's President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination a favorable review, even though it adds little to our knowledge of this strange man who acted at being an actor. In My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front,  Jonathan Raban, a writer whom I've always admired, racks his brains in search of an explanation for the political success of the Bush Administrations in the teeth of failure and disaster; according to reviewer John Leland, Mr Raban doesn't understand how "infantilized" the American electorate has become. Nevertheless, this is a book that I look forward to reading.

One sign of the extent to which we've become infantilized is the apparent need for two collections of essays about torture. That any amount of valuable, even life-saving information can ever justify the infliction of pain and humiliation on the source of that information is a proposition that I refuse to entertain, period. If this makes me a sissy, then I'm happy to be a sissy. The alternative is to be a thug, period once again. Lance Morrow's largely thoughtful review of The Torture Debate in America, edited by Karen J Greenberg, and Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever Okay?, edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, with Amy D Bernstein, made me sick: what debate? How can there be a debate about torture? What on earth has happened to my country?

Wild, creative types are represented by new biographies of Christopher Marlowe and John Cassavetes. Review Philip Lopate feels that journalist Marshall Fine is too great a fan, in Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, to judge the filmmaker's work. I'm inclined to agree with Mr Lopate:

There are revelations in Cassavetes's films that show with startling clarity the map of human confusion, but there are also scenes where actors fumble and bluster through embarrassing shtick.

As for Park Honan's Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy, I wonder at the folly of attempted the book-length treatment of a man about whom we know enough to fill no more than five pages of print. Michael Feingold particularly faults Mr Honan for refusing to acknowledge the sheer cruel cynicism that runs through all of Marlowe's powerful drama. (I wish I could find my collection thereof, by the way. If you borrowed it, please return it.)

John C Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has written a diatribe about the sorry state of Wall Street's ethics, in The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. Jeff Madrick writes that while Mr Bogle's analysis of the situation is astute, his recommendations are wishful and fuzzy - for the simple reason that he won't face up to the fact that governmental deregulation is the true culprit here. On a more personal note, Liz Perle's Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash elicits the polite but firm scorn of Ariel Levy.

What's frustrating about Perle's tropism toward generalizations and evasions is that her subject matter and, at times, her writing about her own fiscal experiences and feelings are so interesting. But whenever she gets too close to nuance and specificity, Perle seems to run for cover under pronouncements about womankind rather than continue on the unmarked path toward insight.

This leaves two books: Honky Tonk Parade: New Yorker Profiles of Show People, by John Lahr, and A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, by Susanne Antonetta. I've enjoyed Mr Lahr's insidery New Yorker pieces (Mr Lahr is the son of the Cowardly Lion), but not quite enough to reread them. Reviewer Ada Calhoun writes of Mr Lahr's interview with Laurence Fishburne that the writer "sounds more like a prom date than a leading drama critic." As for A Mind Apart, Polly Morrice's review suggests the  quirky and inconsistent poeticizing of bipolar disorder and autism. I remain stubbornly convinced that true creativity arises, when it does, despite and not because of serious mental disturbance.

Jeffrey Rosen's Essay, "Judicial Exposure," is a sensible call for restraint to memoir-writing justices. "Too much revelation may undermine the public's respect for judges as apolitical authorities." Amen.

January 22, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The name of Charles Reznikoff is new to me. His shorter poems, edited by Seamus Cooney, have been collected in the Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975. Reznikoff was a lawyer by day but a very serious poet at all times. He summed up his ars poetica thus: "images clear but the meaning not stated but suggested by the objective details and the music of the verse; words pithy and plain; without the artifice of regular meters; themes, chiefly Jewish, American, urban." I'm attracted by everything that reviewer Joshua Clover has extracted, including the relatively well-known couplet

Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies

A girder, still itself among the rubbish.


I'm also caught by Ligaya Mishan's favorable review of Thrity Umrigar's novel, The Space Between Us. Ms Umrigar is a Parsi from Mumbai, which tells of the relationship between a poor housemaid and her middle-class employer, a widow with good reason to think about "the unclean." I'm liking Indian literature more and more, not least because of a quiet local lilt that it's just possible I'm imagining. Gustave Flaubert's conundrum of a novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, has been newly translated by Mark Polizzotti. Left incomplete at the author's death, the novel - if that is what it is - rambles on about the adventures of two ambitious dimwits; Christopher Hitchens's solid review is entitled "I'm With Stupide." It does not make the novel sound like a fun read.

Flaubert is pitiless with his wretched creations, allowing them no moment of joy, or even ease. It is enough for them to turn their hands to a project for it to expire in chaos and slapstick, and after a while this, too, shows the shortcomings of the unpolished, because we can hear the sound of collapsing scenery before the stage has even been set. True bathos requires a slight interval between the sublime and the ridiculous, but no sooner have our clowns embarked on a project than we see the bucket of whitewash or the banana skin.

And then there would be the shame of reading this in English when I ought to be reading it in French. You should see the queue of books en français waiting to be read by moi.

Joyce Carol Oates's fiction is not on my list. Not, not, not, not, not. The quality of her prose is that of cake made from cake mix. Even reviewer Hillary Frey can't restrain herself from saying, in what's meant to be an enthusiastic review, that "this collection ... works best as a source of cheap thrills.


Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, is on my list. I've already written about its central idea here, and I don't know how much the book will add to that, but I recommend it sight-unseen. Professor Yoshino distinguishes between "covering" - minimizing the display of your personal peculiarities for the sake of maximizing your swim in the mainstream - and "passing," which is simply denying that you're peculiar. Norah Vincent has written very well, according to David Kamp's glowing review, about passing as a male in Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again. Ms Vincent's masquerade was entirely cosmetic, but perhaps because she wasn't trying to impress anyone that she was really a man, she was undistracted enough to see just how different public life is for men. Mr Kamp can only fault her for being too forgiving; but then Ms Vincent is a lesbian without a number-one reason to regret that the same men who would avoid eye contact out of respect for another man would indulge in that famous gaze were she in skirts. He does point out that

Conspicuously absent from Self-Made Man, though, are men leading full, contented lives.

Sounds like a very interesting read.

There are several works of biography and memoir. Sherwin B Nuland's Maimonides looks like an important book, one in which one intellectual Jewish physician examines the career of another, albeit one who flourished in the twelfth century. Eminent solicitor-advocate Anthony Julius writes that Dr Nuland "endeavors to find 'the common ground on which Maimonides can walk together with a man or woman today," but he regrets that "Nuland does not concern himself with the tension between what Maimonides stood for and what modern Judaism stands for."

Maimonides was concerned with maintaining the simple faith of the uneducated. The arduous business of philosophy, the esoteric understanding of religious truth, was not for them. He had no conviction that the profound truths of Judaism were within equal reach of all Jews. Maimonides was a bold and (to use an anachronism) fundamentally undemocratic thinker.

Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, by Michael Rosenthal, sounds grim. Review Thomas Mallon suspects that, in researching the life of a celebrated president of Columbia University whose celebrity dimmed the moment he died, in 1947, Mr Rosenthal "endured a long, depressing surprise as the vacuity of his subject fully dawned, or dimmed, on him."

Naysaying jabs from Walter Lippmann, H L Mencken and others never made a dent in this ermine-trimmed nullity while he was being chauffeured from one testimonial to another or writing the autobiography whose only revealing phrase may have been its title, Across the Busy Years.

Sorry as I am for Mr Rosenthal, but I'm not going to read this book. Nor am I going to read Between You and Me: A Memoir, by Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates. Even if Tara McKelvey had pronounced it the Book of the Year, which she most certainly doesn't, her review would not have moved me. What Mr Wallace has done to newscasting forces me to imagine cake mixes using no natural ingredients except fear and loathing. Another memoir that I probably won't read, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir, but this only because the subject of growing up in working class Hartford, known at another well-written Web log as "the Wretched Little City," is just too depressing. And in the Fifties, no less! 

Wyatt Mason gives Colin McGinn's The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact, a very mixed review. As a philosopher at Rutgers, Mr McGinn is perhaps not best-qualified to deal with what seems indisputably to me to be a question of neurophysics, and indeed Mr Mason soon charges him with "twaddle." But he does not dismiss the book:

That few readers will have the patience to get past the book's first 60 turgid pages is doubly unfortunate, for when McGinn calms down he can be a lucid, rewarding writer. His chapter "The Metaphysics of the Movie Image" is as enlightening as the book's earlier pages are undistinguished. Staring at an actor on screen, McGinn notes that we feel "no alienation from a body like this, no division into me and it. It is the body as transformed into another type of material, an immaterial material.

If I encounter the book, I'll be sure to start checking it out well past the beginning.

A posthumous collection of the essays of Joan Didion's late husband could, in Edward Lewine's view, have been better edited; the editor of Regards: The Selected Nonfiction of John Gregory Dunne is anonymous. More problematic is Dunne's preoccupation with Hollywood. I'm going to get this book anyway; if I'm lucky, I'll be able to dig out a copy of Dunne's novel, The Studio. I used to have one.

There are three books about money that I'm tempted to pass over. Gary Sperling's The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity is all but damned out of hand by Noam Scheiber for failing to acknowledge that the Bush Administration does not bargain in good faith, and that the political outlook that enabled Mr Sperling's former boss, Bill Clinton, to eliminate the deficit has vanished from Washington. On a more personal level, Neil Genzlinger reviews The Number: A Completely Different Way To Think About The Rest of Your Life (please! when will editors understand what a turn-off such titles are?), by Lee Eisenberg, and Dave Barry's Money Secrets, by Dave Barry. Mr Barry's book, of course, is a send-up of books such as Mr Eisenberg's. According to Mr Genzlinger, both books bear "shamelessly misleading subtitles."

Judith Shulevitz has written a thoughtful essay, "When Cosmologies Collide," in which she urges elite followers of Darwin to listen to themselves talk. In the course of reviewing two books - Eugenie C Scott's Evolution vs. Creationism and Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Ms Shulevitz asks, "Could something as trivial as scientists' lack of self-awareness help explain why, nearly 150 years after Darwin, creationism in its various forms has become the most popular critique of science? Praising Mr Ruse for distinguishing between "evolution" and "evolutionism," she writes,

Evolutionism addresses questions of origins, the meaning of life, morality, the future and our role in it. In other words, it does all the work of a religion, but from a secular perspective. What gets billed as a war between hard science and mushy theology should rather be understood, says Ruse, as "a clash between two rival metaphysical world pictures."

As for the substance of each sides' debate, Ms Shulevitz praises Ms Scott's book for its explanation of "the scientific method, which many invoke but few describe vividly."

Paul Beatty's Essay, "Black Humor," is a call to lighten up on the gravitas thing in black literature. After listing writers whom he only discovered as grown man - Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, Bob Kaufman, Bert Williams, and even W E B Du Bois - Mr Beatty laments,

I wish I'd been exposed to this black literary insobriety at an earlier age. It would've been comforting to know that I wasn't the only one laughing at myself in the mirror.


January 15, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Of the five novels promoted today, I'm going to try to read Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury (translated from the Arabian by Humphrey Davies). Lorraine Adams calls it "a genuine masterwork" at the end of a review that supports that conclusion. She calls it a Sheherazade in reverse: as if believing that the longer he talks, the longer his comatose patient will live, a doctor relates "a swirl of stories" about the Palestinian exile that began with the foundation of Israel.

Julian Barnes's new novel, Arthur and George, gets a glowing review from Terrence Rafferty that nonetheless says "Stay Away" to me. Mr Barnes has taken up the odd story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successful attempt to clear a half-Indian, half-English lawyer from false charges of - did I get this right? - livestock mutilation.

To clarify: Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French.

Julian Barnes is, to me, something like John Updike, a novelist whose non-fiction I much prefer.

There are two books after the aftershocks of colonial expropriation, Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift (South Africa) and Andrew McGahan's The White Earth (Australia). The former gets a somewhat better review from Allegra Goodman than the latter gets from Geoff Nicholson, but the story lines of both books appear to be unappealingly dismal. As does that of Anita Brookner's Leaving Home; Caryn James has the brass to come out and say that

a musty smell wafts from each new Brookner book, a stale whiff that arises partly because she has tweaked the same novel 232 times in 24 years, and largely because her shrinking-violet heroines live in a hermetic, increasingly unconvincing world.  

I'm not sure that I've read two Brookners, but I recall the "stale whiff" quite well.


We have two books about the Cold War. First, there's John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History, which Michael Beschloss hails as the book to read on this fast-fading chronic crisis that deformed the minds of generations of American officials, many of them still in power. It may be more useful to read Edward Lansdale's Cold War, by Jonathan Nashel. Reviewer James Gibney sketches the strange career of this college dropout who, having averted a revolution in the Philippines, was deputed to do the same in Viet Nam, and points out that he was "one of the few Central Intelligence Agency operatives known to Americans before Congress investigated the agency in the mid-1970's." JFK apparently thought that Lansdale was "America's James Bond," revealing the immature adventure-story approach that this country's operatives have so often taken toward cloak-and-dagger work.

But however well documented, Nashel's effort to portray Lansdale as purely a creature of the cold war seems misleading, if not mistaken. Some two decades after Lansdale's death in 1987, the flawed assumptions that guided his thinking still strive. Just ask the American pundits and policy makers fond of calling people like the former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi the "George Washington of Iraq.

There are three books about important American figures whose eminence did not rise directly from politics. Louise W Knight's Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy is, in Alan Wolfe's view, a "bildung:

an account of how a person's character is formed. ... We know a great deal about Jane Addams the public figure. We know relatively little about how she made the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. In Knight's book, Jane Addams comes to life.

Michael D'Antonio's Hershey: Milton S Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams has a title that tells it all. Benjamin Cheever's review captures an interesting fact: the secret of making milk chocolate is skim milk and slow heating. This is interesting because Hershey planned his chocolate empire before discovering the secret; his Utopia, which is still with us, would have been just another American business disaster if researchers hadn't solved the problem as soon as they did. Hershey's is a rags-to-riches story that Mr D'Antonio is said to have told fairly: "It's the man he's after, not the god."

As for Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Walter Kirn writes that its author,

a retired Columbia history professor who also happens to be a practicing Mormon, has a tricky dual agenda, it turns out: to depict Smith both as the prophet he claimed to be and as the man of his times that he most certainly was.

and then concludes

For Bushman, the fact that his church continues to grow is proof that [Smith] was onto something big, though. For logicians, this is tantamount to arguing that Santa Claus probably exists because he gets millions of letters each year from children. But since logic played almost no part in Joseph Smith's life, it may be fitting that it's largely absent from this respectful biography.

Ana Marie Cox (more Wonkette!) doesn't think much better of Kate O'Beirne's Women Who Make the World Worse: And Hos Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Families, Military, Schools and Sports. I have to say, looking at that subtitle, that the patriarchal agenda couldn't be more clearly laid out, especially if one regards "schools and sports" as a unit, not two ill-wed institutions.

Indeed, it is O'Beirne's desire to demonize feminists in general, rather than naming names, that really disappoints. When she's not picking off the old and weak, she's aiming for the broad side of a barn.

The most interesting thing about Po Bronson's Web site is that it doesn't explain the writer's unusual first name, which seems custom-designed for the kind of writing that Mr Bronson turns out. Rather than discuss Alexandra Jacobs's unflattering review of Why Do I Love These People: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, I refer you to Mr Bronson's response to it. Oh, all right. Ms Jacobs, having noted the writer's resemblance to actor Richard Gere, asks, "Could it be that the author loves these people because they make him look like a sensitive journalist?"

Belinda Rathbone's The Guynd: A Scottish Journal tells the story of a privileged American's late marriage to a Scottish laird in his fifties. Bella Bathurst's review does not disclose the current state of this union; one suspects that the laird may have gone to his reward. Ms Bathurst does outline a book that seems just the ticket for my mother-in-law, who will appreciate all of the stately-home problems that Ms Rathbone encountered at the eponymous "large but decrepit" estate in Angus. (Hint: rhymes with "the wind").

Corey S Powell reviews Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. The problem with string theory - of which Mr Susskind is a founder - seems to be that instead of yielding a single model of physics, it yields about 10500. I hope it isn't facetious of me to acknowledge that I don't need that many reasons not to buy this book.

Finally, there is a book that, if I read it, will almost certainly make me explode. According to Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home, New York City is the big bad water thief that flooded small settlements in the Catskills and elsewhere. To which I roundly reply, Tough! I have not an iota of sympathy for rustics who cling to their cabins at the expense of the only thing that my city gets out of the rest of the United States (aside from much of its population): an excellent water supply. Jane Jacobs long ago persuaded me that cities ought to govern their hinterlands, not, as we do in this country now, the other way round. Anthony Swofford's review hits an unintended nail on the head:

A primitive wailing can be heard in these pages, and Pierson implores us to join her. Or else.

Or else right back to you.

Henry Alford's Essay is an amusing decoupage of some of the strange things for which authors have thanked their friends, relatives, editors and others in acknowledgments. Of the twenty-six works from which extracts were taken, I have read one, and I have another in my pile. I look forward to the inevitable "Acknowledgments" section that is as long as the text it accompanies.

January 11, 2006

Book Review

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

We begin with a prayer for slack. Yes, it is Wednesday, and this feature is three days overdue. But we will not enumerate excuses. Our bad. Like the MTA, we thank you for your patience.

Fiction & Poetry

Have you heard of Justin Cartwright? According to reviewer Tony Eprile, Mr Cartwright is often mentioned along with Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis as a leading light of British fiction. His latest, The Promise of Happiness, doesn't sound very promising so far as Mr Eprile's summary goes, but I'll definitely have a look at this writer. He'd better be more like Messrs McEwan and Ishiguro than Mr Amis, however. Mr Amis is off my list. So is Paul Auster. Walter Kirn gallantly tries to find interest among the shards of Mr Auster's cleverness in The Brooklyn Follies. "An incredibly loud finale," Mr Kirn writes of the Follies finale, "with lots of smoke." File this title under "Life is too short."

Is Christopher Buckley to be trusted when he claims that Ana Marie Cox's Dog Days is "very well-written"? Since he also says that it's "knowing," he must be referring to the quality of the prose, and on the strength of that recommendation I'll give Dog Days a chance, despite many misgivings. Ms Cox is, of course, the former editor of the one-way political Web log, Wonkette. Washington is one sausage factory that I can't take an interest in; it tries, from time to time, to be disgusting, but it rarely transcends the fug of massed, nerdy careerists. Pity, because it's a beautiful town in a charming part of the country.

Daniel Soar writes of Elliot Perlman's collection of short stories, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, that they're "unashamedly various without being feeble, a series of exercises in voice, perspective and style, [dealing] in violence, exile and much else besides." I missed Seven Types of Ambiguity, Mr Perlman's second novel, when it came out a few years ago, but it did make me want to learn more about William Empson. I'll give The Reasons I Won't Be Coming a personal exam the next time I'm in a bookshop. But I'll be giving Zakes Mda's The Whale Caller a pass. Madison Smartt Bell finds this romantic triangle, involving a middle-aged couple and a whale, unclear.

It more resembles a story made up serially for children who are not expected to remember all the episodes together or try to understand them as a coherent whole.

There are two books of poetry to consider, both by American eminences. Charles Bukowski's latest collection, Come On In! is reviewed by D H Tracy. I can't tell if Mr Tracy means to be complimentary when he writes,

That his poems get an F for craft doesn't bother him; since his life gets an F also, he achieves an extraordinary correspondence between word and action.

Then there's The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems by Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate. David Orr has written a Collinsesque poem which you ought to read for yourself. It ends:

In the end, what we need

from a poet with Collins's talent

is not a good-natured wave


from writer to reader,

or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;

what we need is to be drawn


high into the poem's cloud-filled air

and allowed to fall

on rocks real enough to hurt.


The most important book in this week's Book Review is unquestionably Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Black: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. Orlando Patterson's gravely affirming review claims that "Shelby's powerful critique of black cultural particularism incorporates and supersedes all previous discussions of the subject." Briefly, Mr Shelby calls for a "thin" black identity that binds blacks not because of their "race" but because of the insult that has been dealt to people of color. Mr Patterson wishes that Mr Shelby had more to offer poor and ghettoized blacks than the demolition of all conceivable arguments in favor of "thick" identity (cultural particularism).

But if he fails in the positive side of his project, he does so in a constructive manner that prepares the ground for a second try. Given his youth, energy, and enormous intelligence, that second try will be worth waiting for.

In the latter part of the review, Mr Patterson all but deplores Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, by Nell Irvin Painter. A textbook, Ms Painter's work devotes a third of its pages to illustrations, all of them by black artists. This, in Mr Patterson's view, both clots the writing by denying sufficient room for the huge topic and denies the reader an array of contemporary portrayals of black experience prior to 1920.

The assumption throughout this book is that black artists have valuable insights to offer on events and personalities in black history hundreds of years before their time, and that these insights trump the vision of any white artists of the period. The fact that an important scholar could embrace such a view attests, more than anything else, to the dangers of black cultural identity and the urgency of Shelby's overdue critique.

John Simon has been a curmudgeonly old critic since the reign of Good Queen Anne, or so it seems. Now his pronouncements have been bundled up in three collections, John Simon on Theatre, with an introduction by Jack O'Brien, John Simon on Film, with an introduction by Bruce Bereford, and John Simon on Music, with an introduction by Ned Rorem. I didn't need Liesl Schillinger's review to decide that I'm going to pass on the first two of these but get the third.

While Simon's theatre and film criticism can serve as a chronological aide-mémoire for what was onstage and on screen at any particular period, his music criticism is less snarky, less time-pegged, less inventive and, arguably, more useful. It consists largely of informative profiles of his favorite composers, written to accompany new recordings of their works.

I don't know why, but it seems odd that Applause Theatre & Cinema Books is the publisher of these collections, not the Library of America.

There are two books by or about people who, among other things, were famous photographers - Lee Miller and Gordon Parks. Lee Miller: A Life, by Carolyn Burke, elicits a sympathetic review from Elissa Schappell, but, as she writes, "It is unfortunate that when Miller cracks up under the strain of depression and alcohol, her character doesn't crack open." More life-affirming, A Hungry Heart: A Memoir is the second installment of Gordon Parks's autobiography. John Wranovics writes, "Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers."

There are two works of history this week. One attempts to kindle interest in the career of May Duignan, aka Chicago May, a woman of crime. I gather from Ben MacIntyre's review that Nuala O'Faolain's The Story of Chicago May doesn't succeed, except insofar as it recaptures the immigrant experience of thousands of Irish men and women who encountered undreamed-of freedoms in the New World. Considerably less dispensable is Fred Anderson's The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. Jay Winik concludes thus:

In this little primer about a little-studied conflict, Anderson, a meticulous historian, writes with intelligence and vigor. He has given us a rich, cautionary tale about the unpredictability of war - then no less than today.

Equally interesting, and saddled with an equally unfortunate title, Journalistas: 100 Years of the Best Writing and Reporting by Women Journalists, editedby Eleanor Mills with Kira Cochrane will probably find its way into my pile. The title of Jill Abramson's review, "The Lionesses," would have served much better. Photographs of Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Emma Goldman, Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag adorn the text, and make it clear that Journalistas is a solid work. Ms Abramson is right to berate the editors for exclusing Hannah Arendt "because she wrote mostly in German." Even if true, that's preposterously irrelevant, considering the importance of her writing in English.

Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making "Rebel Without a Cause," by Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, looks like a must-read for film buffs, not least because of the authors' proposition that, in review Stephanie Zacharek's words, "Dean helped redefine Hollywood's idea of masculinity." I am not above taking a lurid interest in the fact that director Nicholas Ray's son, Tony, slept with Ray's wife, Gloria Grahame, at the age of thirteen.

 I'm tempted to overlook Neil Genzlinger's Gambling Chronicle. I find gambling almost as profoundly boring as it is pointlessly risky. But Mr Genzlinger has an amusing hook: he describes each book with an expression that sounds as though it might mean something at the poker table.

Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids: How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas, by David Kushner. "Shoot the Puppy: to be overeager like a puppy, to the point that it detracts from your message by making people want to shoot you."

Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kids Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees, by Ben Mezrich. "No Monte, Just Carlo: Something that appears glamorous but isn't; inspired by Carlo Rizzi, the hapless brother-in-law in The Godfather, who marries into the family but is beaten to a pulp by Sonny."

Annie Duke: How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, by Annie Duke with David Diamond. "Grody Flush: a gratuitous reference to vomiting."

How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker: The Wisdom of Dickie Richard, by Penn Jillette and Mickey D Lynn. "Bald Weasel: a person or thing that is transparently manipulative."

All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker, by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. "Pair of Lees: Anything that simultaneously invokes gorging (as in Sara Lee pastries) and spiritual emptiness (as in Peggy Lee's, 'Is That All There Is?')."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Keeper of the Canon," is an interesting piece about a changing-of-the-guard at the Norton Anthology. I was very snooty about this tome when I was in college, but secretly I wanted to have one just like everybody else's. It's true that I spent my collegiate years reading many of the books from which the Norton took its extracts, and I'm still appalled, in still moments, by the thought that there is not sufficient time in the undergraduate career for reading and discussing Great Books. If not there, where? And what else, really, should college students be doing?

January 02, 2006

Book Review

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


What a predicament. I can't find the Book Review anywhere. In the holiday shuffle, it went missing. I must have done something "special" with it after I finished reading it. I have to tell you that reconstructing the Review from online resources is very unsettling and not at all fun. I am tempted to take a holiday.

But no. There were two novels, as I recall, given half-page treatment each, and a roundup of five more. Elizabeth Gaffney reviewed Jane Turner Rylands's collection of linked short stories, Across the Bridge of Sighs: More Venetian Stories, and Sarah Towers reviewed Myriam Chapman's Why She Married Him. Both reviews were mixed, favorable on the whole but shot with misgivings. The Venetian stories center on the death of two friends in an automobile accident; in Why She Married Him, a Russian émigrée in Paris finds dissatisfaction in marriage. The roundup, Sarah Ferguson's "Fiction Chronicle," was a very mixed bag, starting with the new Nicholas Sparks, At First Sight, a book that I will never open, having no doubt that the reviewer was correct to write of "dialogue [that] can be knuckle-bitingly bad." Marge Piercy's Sex Wars is another one of those historical novels - there was a book about Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle not long ago - in which really interesting real-life people, in this case Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock, are upstaged by a fictional character, in this case "a determined young Jewish immigrant from Russia who goes into the homemade condom business." Oy. The Prisoner Fear: Strories from the Lake, by Elissa Minor Post, is about strange doings in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a suburb of Portland, and it sounds like comfort reading for the mildly depressed. Jon Hassler, whom I've never heard of, has been writing novels about fictional Staggerford, Minnesota for nearly thirty years; his latest The New Woman, is about a feisty 87 year-old amiable busybody. I'm curious to know more. Finally, Kit Reed's Dogs of Truth: New and Uncollected Stories sounds ripely unpleasant, telling, among other things of "a high school riot 'worse than Attica'."


The cover of the Book Review announces "Literary Lives," but the selection of biographies and autobiographies is motley to the point of illiteracy. The subjects of the nine books are, in alphabetical order, Isaac Babel, Zane Grey, Leigh Hunt, Franz Kafka, Frank Norris, Katherine Anne Porter, Siegfried Sassoon, Sidney Sheldon and William Wordsworth. The only one that tempts me is Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, by Thomas H. Pauly. Jonathan Miles's review, "Rider of the Purple Prose," makes this book sound like a camp hit, between Grey's terrible writing and his "harem" of young women. On top of all that, Grey was an excellent sport fisherman, and broke a couple of records. Well, who'd 'a' thunk it? Second prize for camp lit may go to Katherine Anne Porter: The Life of an Artist, by Darlene Harbour Unrue. Paul Gray writes,

This biography devotes remarkably little space to critical analyses of Porter's fiction - a curious omission, since what Porter wrote is the only reason anyone would now want to read, or to write, her biography.

It's lines like that that keep me going. Mr Gray continues,

Unrue's attention turns instead to Porter's constant problems in finding sufficient funds to match her growing celebrity and to satisfy her burgeoning tastes in designer clothes and jewelry. There is an undeniable fairy-tale attraction to this part of Unrue's story. Porter was blessed with a small army of friends and admirers who offered her loans, outright gifts of cash and houses to stay in when she needed a roof over her head.

Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel are major writers whom I happen not to care for. perhaps because they embody the serious political problems of the twentieth century. Reading about them in passing is interesting enough. So neither Kafka: The Decisive Years, by Reiner Stach (reviewed by Marco Roth) nor Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel, by Jerome Charyn (James Campbell) is on my list. Nor, certainly, is The Other Side of Me, by Sidney Sheldon, even though Jane and Michael Stern (rather predictably) like it. I read The Other Side of Midnight when it appeared in paperback; it was a conversion experience. Hitherto I hadn't known that books could be Bad. 

My faulty memory told me that the subject of The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt, by Anthony Holden, had an affair with Agnew Lewes, the wife of George Eliot's lover, but in fact - I have just ransacked my library to settle the point - the adulterer was Hunt's eldest son, Thornton. According to Megan Marshall's review, The Wit in the Dungeon is more sensational than substantial.

Holden tells the story of Hunt's jailing for libel with the breathless fascination of a veteran royals watcher, giving little sense of the larger issues at stake. Similarly, some analysis of the shifting social scene that had Byron first seeking out Hunt in his jail cell, then turning his back on him as a member of a vulgar "Cockney" school of writers, would have been helpful.

Hunt went to prison for libeling the Prince of Wales; he would have preferred to be remembered for his poetry, which he is not. Also no longer famous for his poetry is Siegfried Sassoon, the reckless scion of a prosperous Anglo-Jewish family. According to reviewer Daniel Swift, "The great motorcar of modern life moved on, leaving Sassoon stranded in a ditch," and Max Egremont's Siegfried Sassoon: A Life isn't quite the tow-truck that's wanted. Still celebrated for his poetry, William Wordsworth has yet to make a hit with me; I find him wordy, period. So I'm not much upset that James Fenton can't quite enthuse about Juliet Barker's Wordsworth: A Life. Mr Fenton makes it clear that the English edition, which appeared several years ago to great acclaim, is superior to the new American edition, from which the scholarly apparatus has been deleted.

Victor Davis Hanson reviews Frank Norris: A Life, by Joseph R. McElrath Jr. and Jesse S. Crisler. Norris, the author of The Octopus and McTeague, died very young, at 32, of appendicitis. He seems a sympathetic sort, and I've no doubt that I would read the biography - even though Mr Hanson characterizes it as a "hagiography" - if somebody gave it to me.

Finally, there's a very silly book about champagne. Alida Becker was not much impressed by Champagne: How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times, by Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup.

Stone cold sober, you might find yourself irritated by their scattershot approach to the history of "the world's most glamorous wine." You might accuse them of being superficial and disorganized, or at least easily distracted. But if you put yourself in an amiably distracted state, their breezy factoids and vignettes become manageable, even charming. If nothing else, you'll sympathize when they confess to some research that "went straight to our heads."

In short, a magazine article stretched to book length. Non, merci.

John Horgan's Essay, "Einstein Has Left The Building," muses on the failure of any subsequent scientist to take Einstein's place in the popular imagination.

The budding scientists and engineers I encounter in my job give me hope that science has a bright future. But I suspect that we will never see Einstein's like again, because he was the product of a unique convergence of time and temperament. Besides, Einstein didn't think he lived up to his own reputation either. "I am no Einstein," he once said. Of course, such modesty only makes us admire and miss him more.

I wish you many hours of contented reading in 2006!

December 26, 2005

Book Review

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

The Book Review is very thin, almost skimpy. Great, I thought. But I was wrong. The Book Review is skimpy because there are no advertisements. The issue contains the usual complement of reviews. I really must protest. Joe Queenan's Essay, "Wish List: No More Books!" certainly struck a nerve. And looking at the books reviewed, I had to wonder what sort of desolate, anti-seasonal state of mind the Book Review's editors wished to conjure for its readers.


Take fiction, for example. You can have it all, this week. Consider:

¶ John Barth's collection of three novellas, Where Three Roads Meet, which, according to Deborah Friedell, works best when Mr Barth writes least self-consciously, and which becomes "almost unreadable" when he waxes "experimental." Let's just go to the dentist instead.

¶ Equally airless sounds Gabriel Brownstein's The Man From Beyond, in which Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle spend some time on the Jersey shore arguing about spiritualism. They are upstaged, reviewer Jennifer Haigh complains, by a twenty-two year-old tabloid reporter called Molly Goodman. I read Mr Brownstein's last book, a collection of literary hommages entitled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, but found that I had nothing to say about it afterward. Mr Brownstein is far from the worst writer in the world, and if he could have his Barth modules (nodules?) extracted, he might even become a good one.

Rust and Bone - now, there's a Christmas title! Craig Davidson is the pseudonymous author of several horror novels, and you might think that he'd write straightforward prose, but, no; reviewer Lizzie Skurnick finds that "The writer in Davidson cannot get out of his characters' way."

In the title story, a boxer, unable to punch through ice fast enough to save his drowning nephew, destroys his right hand in a battery of increasingly violent fights. It's a fine setup, but Davidson subjects us, like his boxer's opponents, to the punishing blows of the symbolism until we're ready to scream.

¶ Finally, there's A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher. Ms Fisher has worked as a ranch hand and as a carpenter, Sally Eckhoff tells us, and in this first novel she has taken the story of her great-great-great-great-grandmother, Lucy Mitchell as the basis for a novel. Lucy Mitchell was taken by her second husband on a trek along the Oregon trail, and needless to say the experience was greatly unlike a spin on the Interstate. Ms Fisher hews too close to the facts for Ms Eckhoff's taste, however, and the reviewer found that she couldn't work up much enthusiasm for Lucy's romantic adventures. 

There's no harm in a historic novel whose scenery is more colorful than its characters, but as Lucy starts to fade from the page, we may be a little glad to see her go.

If there is a reason for presenting any of these books in a Review bearing a Christmas Day dateline, I don't want to know what it is.


¶ Just what I wanted for Christmas: to read about the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton as imagined by obsessive partisans! Spouses Dick Morris and Eileen McGann sex up their case against Hillary with the vision of a battle royal with Republican nominee Condoleezza Rice. Susan Estrich, on the other hand, seems wearily impatient with anyone who doubts that Hillary Clinton can not only win the next presidential election but go on to change the world. This is all such a waste of paper that I was initially titillated by Ada Calhoun's review of I'm No Saint: A Nasty Little Memoir of Loving and Leaving, by Elizabeth Hayt. But, no; "nasty" turns out to be exactly what Ms Hayt has written.

But what Sex and the City devotees want is not lusty honesty; it's Hayt's reassurance that it's cool to put up with abusive men if they'll bestow expensive gifts and that it's a sign of glamour, not snobbery, if you don't "do" public transportation.

A pox &c.

¶ Nor is there much seasonal jollity to be found in Thomas Powers' sober but sane review of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. As someone who believes quite fervently that real progress will not begin in Iraq until the last American troops withdraw, I'm sorry that I don't have more common ground with Mr Powers, who points out the authors are not actually so much concerned about "the next attack" as they are in assessing how much further damage to our reputation in the Islamic world has been wrought by our Iraqi misadventure. Mr Powers also makes it clear that anyone who buys The Next Attack for the solace that a strategy for "getting it right" might afford is wasting money:

The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that at this point two writers with as much experience as Benjamin and Simon don't really what to do next.

¶ Not only is John Updike's Still Looking: Essays on American Art is very much on my list, but I've just finished reviewer Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. This is not the place to talk of either. But it was serendipitous to encounter Elizabeth Royte's qualified boost for Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl so soon after looking at all the Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans photographs that Mr Dyer writes about. Mr Dyer, an Englishman, never explicitly mentions the huge role that the Dust Bowl disaster had in shaping the American photographic tradition and, as a result, giving it a thrust that constantly criticizes the naiveté of American dreams. The Worst Hard Time is a tale of American denial that suggests that the strain of courage that brought Europeans to the New World can have its foolhardy side when it comes to ignoring Mother nature.

¶ About Harvey Pekar: why can I not stop wondering why he's famous when he doesn't illustrate his own strips? Ideally, the graphic novelist writes and draws, but where the labor is divided, I put the illustrator ahead of the writer. I don't see why Dean Haspiel, then, gets one line of praise in Dave Itzkoff's review of The Quitter, while the rest is devoted to a discussion of Cleveland's most famous misfit.

¶ The six books reviewed in Jacob Heilbrunn's Nonfiction Chronicle have as little in common as they have to do with Christmas. The miscellany is so various that I'm tempted to overlook it altogether, an inclination that I overcome only by imagining what Joe Queenan would say about receiving any of them.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Move Star, by Guess Who, with Eddie Muller. This is probably a must-read for Hollywood-studio history, of which I'm one. I have admired Mr Hunter ever since he revealed his capacity to play a bastard in Polyester.

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Vivian Gornick. A good book about Stanton, a bad book about loneliness.

Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, by Moisés Naim. "Hijacking" can't be the right word for "ripping-off." Worse, readers will encounter "a mass of supporting detail that at times will excite only the most wonkish nerds." The better book would have compared and contrasted international businesses and the infranational thieves who steal from them as significant threats to sovereign autonomy and lawfulness.

A World of Light, by Floyd Skloot. "These essays, while laudably free of false sentimentality, inadvertently commit the opposite sin of becoming almost wholly antiseptic." Never having heard of Mr Skloot, I feel that an effective argument on his behalf would have required more than a roundup review. I do understand, that a lukewarm review is better than none, and I hope that Mr Skloot can manage to be grateful for that.

Elephant's Edge: The Republicans as a Ruling Party, by Andrew J Taylor. "This book is the latest entry in a growing field..." Next.

Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943, by Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Madeline G Levine. Milosz was a great poet and a witness to freedom's superiority to power, and the contents of this book may indeed "form a remarkable testament to an uncaptive mind," but you can't tell it from the title, which suggests nothing so much a very long series of books to come. Writing that stretch all the way from one year to - the next? Applying the Queenan formula, you would bad-mouth this book even if you really liked it, for fear of being burdened by further installments.

Perhaps it's a mistake to ask for the Book Review to strike the Christmas note. The cover article, which begins in a cascade of print designed to suggest the light cast by the Star in the East that guided the Magi, may be concerned with Christianity, but its connection to Christmas is a last-minute thing, a matter of Jon Meacham' quoting like-minded sentiments from the religious John Cardinal Newman and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll. For the most part, "Tidings" is taken up with Rodney Starks's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. This astonishing bit of claptrap hardly deserves such prominent attention from the Book Review. Mr Stark's opus apparently contrasts some very threadbare prejudices about "them" - the emphasis that non-Western faiths allegedly place on "mystification" - with the novel idea, no doubt gagging to philosophes past and present, that Christianity itself, far from partaking of such faults, has been the principal engine of Western superiority because of its commitment to reason. Mr Meacham, whose day job as the managing editor of Newsweek tells us nothing about his background in religious history, faults Mr Stark's book for rampant chauvinism and for a disinclination to consider the very unreasonable things that have been done in Christianity's name, but everything about the review presents The Victory of Reason as an Important Book. It was quite seasick-making to read.

In the last third of his piece, Mr Meacham turns to two other books, neither of which has much to do with Mr Stark's. Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America's Sacred Ground, a collection of essays edited by Barbara A McGraw and Jo Renee Formicola, sounds like a good, if possibly to academic and theoretical book. Mr Meacham highlights a contribution by Derek H Davis, "The Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty," as a work of historical reflection that might well give pause to the highly politicized and rather intolerant religious right of today. Mr Meacham then turns to Prayer: A History, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, but without positively indicating whether the book is a greeting card or a something more serious.

Mr Queenan's Essay reminds me that what I want for Christmas, and not necessarily at Christmas, are recommendations, not books. The last book that I remember receiving as a gift was a devotional tract about Mother Teresa; you can imagine how long that stayed in the house. Mr Queenan manages to stud his complaint about unwanted books with plenty of shafts aimed at well-known titles, Angela's Ashes and The Tipping Point among them; it wouldn't be Joe Queenan writing if he didn't gore at least one of your sacred cows. Whatever your feelings about Dan Ackroyd - actor, musician, writer - you have to admit that you read Joe Queenan because of passages like the following one:

I do not avoid books like Accordion Man or Elwood's Blues merely because I believe that life is too short. Even if life were not too short, it would still be too short to read anything by Dan Ackroyd.

Not to mention (as Mr Queenan does) Hi-Ho Steverino! If you line up the titles that Mr Queenan regards with respect (such as Junichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles) with the items on his "still too short" list, a distinction between readerly pleasure on the one hand and packaged information on the other will emerge.

Do you have a problem with gift books? My guess is that the closer you get to reading and writing for a living, the more highly differentiated your taste becomes, such that, aside from reading a few of the books that all the other reading and writing professionals are talking about, you don't require much outside input, and the harder it will be for others to hit upon books that you will want to read.

December 18, 2005

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Perhaps I ought to point out, every so often, that there are three areas of Book Review coverage that I don't follow: Crime, Science Fiction, and Children's Books.

There, that's out of the way. Now for something truly surprising: a bad review for Nadine Gordimer! Get A Life, reviewed by Sophie Harrison, doesn't sound very inviting. A man afflicted with a variety of thyroid cancer that Ms Harrison assures us is not as deadly as the novelist thinks it is - take that! - a man with cancer goes off to live with his parents so that his wife and son will not be exposed to his radioactivity. Odious comparisons with The Magic Mountain are invited. "Sickness may be a universal human affliction," Ms Harrison writes, "but that doesn't mean each person's experience of it isn't unique. This novel forgets that. I've always felt bullied by Ms Gordimer whenever I've tried out one of her stories in The New Yorker, and I'm not a fan.

Nadine Gordimer, however, is a celebrated writer. First-time novelist Jennifer Vandever is not, and I wonder why reviewer Chelsea Cain was given two-thirds of a page to enumerate the faults of The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR. I'd like to stop right there, with the PR crack, but the review itself has a great line. Sara Frost is a Charlotte Brontë scholar in search of a lost letter that will make or break her dissertation. I have learned to dislike this sort of book, of which the following sentence, mutatis mutandis, always seems apt:

There are quotes from Brontë's letters, some biographical trivia, a bit of gossip about an unrequited love - but Sara's devotion to Brontë's work is never entirely believable.

That's because it's literary appliqué, meretriciously tarting up a routine bit of chick-lit. Another tell-tale sign: the bad girl, Claire, is the sparkling character at the center of the satire that Ms Vandever ought to have written.

The symposium at which Claire quotes Yeats, Versace and Donald Trump, all in relation to Princess Diana [her subject], highlights not only Claire's ridiculousness but the inherent perils of taking pop culture seriously at all.

Dawn Drzal's review of Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson, set off a surprisingly intense siren wail, the one that signals backfiring humor, than which few literary mishaps are more unpleasant. "When going out to dinner with someone you would be relieved to learn had died during the course of the day," runs the note to one of the facetious recipes that stud this novel about one of those Englishmen who dislikes just about everybody. Once upon a time, I found this sort of thing hugely funny. I don't know what happened, but it certainly happened. Now, when I read that note, I'm simply relieved that I'm not likely to have dinner with anyone whom I'd prefer to be dead.

Former counterterrorism official Richard A Clarke has penned a thriller, Scorpion's Gate, that would probably start up a gale of constructive questioning by the people who ought to read it, were they to read it. According to thriller-writer Joseph Finder's review,

The Scorpion's Gate is unlikely to alter American foreign policy and as a thriller it's not going to set anyone's hair on fire. But its geopolitical arguments are no doubt as plausible as any you might find in the President's Daily Brief. Probably more so. After all, whatever his enemies in the Bush administration may say, Clarke's talent really isn't for fiction.

Nice touch, that. Helen Shulman's review of Music Through the Floor: Stories, by Eric Puchner, is a rave. Mr Puchner's tales, she writes,

are told in a classical mode - not groundbreaking in terms of form or content (misfits forced to swim against life's current), but executed with such fluency, constructed with such surprising plot twists and blessed with so many bright, memorable lines that they rise above the contemporary din.

The problem was, I came to Ms Shulman's judgment. She writes with more enthusiasm than appreciation. David Kirby's similarly favorable review of Kay Ryan's new book of poems, The Niagara River, seems more reliable on that score. He places her verse in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and notes that she "cautions us against our strengths rather than our frailties."


I'm tempted to ignore Hugo Lindgren's review of two new books about video games on the theory that they're science fiction, but that, of course, is exactly what they're not. Imagine how pleased I was to read the editorial suggestion that they "may show us where the whole world is heading." Edward Castranova, author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, is "bullish," Mr Lindgren writes.

Life in these alternative zones may eventually become so fulfilling, he contends, "that a fairly substantial exodus may loom in the distance." He means this, really. Like the Irish and Italians who left their native lands in the late 19th century to come to America, gamers could create a genuine human migration, away from the real and into the virtual. What will be real then?

Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby, the authors of Smartboard: The Quest for Art, Entertainment and Big bucks in the Videogame Revolution, are apparently more realistic. They write about an obsessive gamer who frequently loses his jobs and has to move back in with his mother. This is one pastime that I'm grateful I was simply too old for. (Full disclosure: I play FreeCell during interruptions, and I'll play the same hand until I've played every card ("won"), but I have never actually sat down at the computer to play it.)

There are two books about science. One, A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and "Low Mechanicks," by Clifford D Conner, is doomed from the start. I didn't need Jonathan Wiener's review to underline the sad truth about so many of the discoveries that contributed to our comfort and convenience: they were made anonymously and not recorded. There are a few gadgets - zippers, for example - whose invention can be traced, but most cannot, and some discoveries, such as that of bronze, probably required "generations of experimenters." While speculating about such matters, Mr Conner is huffy about Great Men - the Newtons and Einsteins who discovered universal laws of little everyday application. At least our scientific endeavor forms a continuum from theory to practice; in the middle ages, engineers built cathedrals without any input from academics. Mr Clifford is guilty of grudging wishful thinking. Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science, in contrast, is quite level-headed, even if reviewer John Horgan calls his book a "diatribe, from start to finish." There is simply no question that Republicans have been intervening in what used to be non-partisan projects in order to free enterprise from restriction on the one hand and to pacify religious conservatives on the other. The former is by far the more damaging, because it invariably involves environmental degradation. You would expect a patriarchy to take its stewardship responsibilities seriously, but the one currently running the United States couldn't care less about what human beings will have to cope with fifty years from now. Or perhaps they really do believe their own misstatements and adulterations of language. The Republican War on Science is essential reading for anyone who has just begun to have doubts about the Bush Administration.

In Come Back to Afghanistan, Said Hyder Akbar, a teenager from California, writes, with help from Susan Burton, an editor at "This American Life," about a recent sojourn in his ancestral homeland. His father, Said Fazel Akbar, returned to Afghanistan at the request of his old friend, Hamid Karzai, who appointed him governor of Kunar. His son spent summers with him, and, at the urging of Ms Burton, he kept the audio diary that is the basis of this book. I doubt that there will be many surprises for readers of The Kite Runner, but Mr Akbar does appear to have developed a critical view of the American military presence, which, as usual, is poor at effective communication with the locals. (All I have to do is imagine Manhattan's occupation by troops of undereducated Appalachians, and I'm as good as in Kabul myself.)

Cambridge don Richard J Evans is working on a three-volume look at Nazi Germany; the second, The Third Reich In Power: 1933-1939, looks like a good read for anyone who can stand that sort of thing right now; I'm still recovering from Ian Kershaw's two-volume biography of the Führer. (Under a different administration, I'd have recovered a long time ago; instead, I'm getting worse.) Brian Ladd praises the book but in the end pronounces it "less gripping ... than Shirer's." I'm not sure that being gripping is what a history of fascist misrule needs to strive for. I believe that Professor Evans is a leading opponent of Holocaust-denier David Irving.

On the whole, Luke Mitchell doesn't see the need for The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution, by Marc Weingarten. The high-profile journalists that came out of the Sixties had and have little in common beyond the cultivation of distinctive narrative voices; if they are all mildly paranoid, they're not afraid of the same monsters. A book that set out to distinguish these writers from one another would have been much more useful. Of no use whatever is Peggy Noonan's hagiography, John Paul the Great. I didn't know that Ms Noonan grew up in a household of lapsed Catholics, but everything else in Kenneth L Woodward's review was predictable. Why does Ms Noonan bother? Aside from a brief greeting, she did not know the late pontiff, and she has no original scholarship to offer. I have a hard time allowing this book to line up under the nonfiction rubric. "John Paul the Great," writes Mr Woodward,

is as much about Peggy Noonan as it is about the pope - which is probably why her name is in larger print than his on the cover, and in the place where book titles normally appear.

David Leavitt's new book about Alan Turing looks appealing, and I may get it on the strength of Madison Smartt Bell's incredibly good book about Lavoisier, an earlier entry in the Atlas/Norton "Great Discoveries" series. Reviewer George Johnson likes The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer well enough, but he feels that Mr Leavitt did a better job of getting into the mind of one of his fictional characters than he goes of entering Turing's, but I'm not sure that is quite what's required. If Mr Leavitt can make Turing's work as obviously indispensable as Mr Bell made Lavoisier's, then I'll be quite happy.

Neither The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, by Richard M Fried, nor Crashing the Borders: How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home, by Harvey Araton, gets an entirely favorable review. Michael Kazin is not sure that the world is a better place because of the advertising ministrations of the huckster from BBD&O, much less that he had anything to contribute to the making of America. Upon a second look, I see that I'm wrong as to Mr Araton's book - Alexander Wolff likes it. It cannot be said even now that I have read the review.

Tara McKelvey, an American Prospect editor whom I read in The Nation, rounds up five books for a Nonfiction Chronicle. The first of these is 740 Park: The Story of the World's Richest Apartment Building, by Michael Gross. On all the evidence - not just Ms McKelvey's - this book is too silly to mention. It is what we New Yorkers call "real estate porn," certainly no less salacious than the other kind. How Not To Get Rich: Or Why Being Bad Off Isn't So Bad, by Robert Sullivan. This is not a serious book, either, although it might have been.

Ultimately, the book reads as if it had been dashed off by a guy telling his wife he was a fool not to buy the first apartment they lived in, even though she recognized "an on-ramp to financial security," and not, unfortunately, by a guy who take any of this stuff seriously.

Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, by Heather Rogers, is one measure of how far we have to go before we start taking stewardship seriously. It might make you think, but it lacks the visual impact of David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries. Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, by Larry Beinhart, ought really to have been called Fog Brain: Trying to Think While Watching Television, but that would have been a different book, I suppose.

The lone history book in the Chronicle fares no better under Ms McKelvey's discerning eye. Court Lady and Country Wife: Two Noble Sisters in Seventeenth-Century England, by Lita-Rose Betcherman, is about offshoots of the Percy family who prospered, after a fashion, during the Stuart Restoration. One was a beauty, the other a prolific mother. On balance, neither was an interesting woman. Ouch!

Pamela Paul's Essay, "What Are They Saying About Me?" discusses authors and the bloggers who write about them. This will be an interesting piece to look back on in five years, by which time the blogosphere will have become far more articulated - organized in regions and levels - than it is now. The essay was compulsive reading for me, needless to say, but it didn't have anything interesting to say about the vineyard in which I'm toiling.

Finally, Byron Calame, the newspaper's public editor, weighed in, in "The Week In Review," on conflict-of-interest procedures at the Book Review. I tried to read it three times but could not make any headway.

December 11, 2005

Book Review

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


Why, one wonders, have the editors of the Book Review given Marcel Theroux's ultimately unfavorable review of Cold Sun, the Catalan novel by Albert Sanchez Piñol, the same amount of space that they've allotted to Caroline Alexander's thoughtful coverage of three obviously more significant books? Mr Theroux's piece summarizes Mr Piñol's gothic monster story, set in Antarctica, and then trashes the author's way of telling it. This looks like free-riding to me. Ms Alexander's books are the first offerings of a new series, from the publisher Canongate, of celebrated myths retold by eminent authors, and also Karen Armstrong's non-fiction introduction to the series, also in book form, A Short History of Myth. The review is guardedly enthusiastic about Ms Armstrong's book. As for the two novels, she really likes Jeanette Winterson's Weight, which retails the mythic episode in which Herakles relieved Atlas of the weight of the world, so that Atlas could fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides for him, and she really doesn't like Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which, in her opinion, is just one missed opportunity after another. "This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that becomes dangerously close to being a spoof.

Other fiction is rounded up in Polly Shulman's Fiction Chronicle.

Twins, by Marcy Dermansky, sounds intriguing. Chloe and Sue have contrasting feelings about their twinship which repolarize over time. I'll have to check out the quality of the prose, first.

¶ So does The English Teacher, by Lily King. An adolescent tries to save his mother from alcoholism and to get her to tell him about his father, whom he never knew.

Macdougal Street Ghosts, by Hesper Anderson, does not come across very well. It is the story of a rather nasty-sounding wife living in Greenwich Village during the Sixties, and Ms Shulman's review is somewhat ambivalent. Does the following passage mean that this novel is a "devastating portrait" or a "boring read"?

Callie's little rebellion may be part of that larger story, but only accidentally; she's too wrapped up in self-pity and a sense of entitlement to care about advancing anybody's cause but her own.

¶ Tim Winton's The Turning: New Stories appears, on the evidence of this review, to channel Cormac McCarthy's austere horrors in an Australian setting.

If You Want Me To Stay, by Michael Parker, is a coming-of-age novel very unlike The English Teacher, taking place as it does (part of the time) in the locked cab of a pickup truck, where three boys seek protection while their father loses his mind. Eventually, the eldest turns on the engine and embarks in pursuit of Mom.

Emily Nussbaum generously reviews The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. The most accessible of the famous New York School poets, Koch was, in Ms Nussbaum's opinion,

"sloppy, in other words - willing to chatter on, lacking precision. But then, it was these very weaknesses, and his avid pleasure in the flux and mess of the world, that made Kenneth Koch - as a writer and as a poetic persona - such a delight. An unrestrained celebrant of the urban appetites, he gave excitement a good name.


We'll start with two charming books, A N Wilson's After the Victorians, which Walter Olson doesn't think much of, and Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples, by Dan Hofstadter, about which Shirley Hazzard is enthusiastic. Mr Olson, of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, has little patience for Mr Wilson's anti-US judgments, and not for the first time I have to wonder what the editors were thinking when they aligned book and reviewer. It's at times like this that I feel that the Times is not-so-covertly right-wing. After the Victorians is a sequel to a book that I have written about here. As for the Naples book, you can be sure that I'd be buying it Ms Hazzard herself were the author. Two of her novels, Cliffs of Fall and The Bay of Noon are indelibly set in Italy, the latter in Naples. (And of course there's her sparkling memoir, Greene on Capri.)

There's a book about Buffalo Bill, that, according to Geoffrey C Ward, will be indispensable to readers who are

interested in Buffalo Bill, 19th-century show business or the many meanings of the American West,,,

As I fit into none of these categories, I'll be giving Louis S Warren's Buffalo bill's America: William Cody and the Wild West Show a pass. Even if it were otherwise, I'd be put off by such prose as Mr Ward quotes. Professor Warren has set out to write the definitive book about the mythogenic showman, and in more or less academic terms. I would just as soon find myself on the moon as in "the American West" - the region between Omaha, Nebraska and Pasadena, California. I saw it first in the days when advertisements sometimes included the proviso, "shipping slightly higher west of the Rockies" - or even "of the Mississippi." I am still in therapy.

Lynn Truss, author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, does not strike me as a very gifted writer. For all her vexed fretting about punctuation, she doesn't seem to have an ear for the music that punctuation creates (sometimes by omission). Like so many writers about language - and good old William Safire will remain at the top of my list of sinners in this regard until he stops pontificating in the Sunday Times Magazine - Ms Truss is cursed with a tin ear, and I for one refuse to seek advice from those incapable of felicitous prose. Her new book, Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today seems, in reviewer Bob Morris's view, "more likely to empower her fellow sticklers to set themselves upon the world, causing, in this rage-prone age, more incivility, not less."

This leaves two books about current affairs. One, reviewed by Andrew Wheatcroft, is The Great War for Civilization, by reporter Robert Fisk. Mr Wheatcroft feels that this compendious volume is "several books fighting each other inside the sack": a memoir, "an intelligent young person's guide to western Asia," and a tirade against American and Israeli activities. The reviewer acknowledges that he shares many of the author's views, but he wishes that Mr Fisk would be less contentious and more circumspect about laying them out. Helpfully, Mr Wheatcroft reminds us that today's troubled state of affairs dates back to mistakes finalized, so to speak in 1919.

Matt Bai's review of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S Hacker and Paul Pierson, may save you some money, because this book has nothing to add to the What's the Matter With Kansas school of political analysis.

In fact, Hacker and Pierson cannot seem to find any significant fault among Democrats at all, save for their chronic but so darn lovable disunity. Like Frank and Lakoff, the authors seem to prefer the more self-ennobling explanation that conservatives have seized power from an unwitting electorate. For all its pretensions to objectivity, Off Center deteriorates into just the latest example in our political discourse of what might be called confirmational analysis - that is, a work whose primary purpose is to confirm what its audience already believes.

When will intelligent progressives recognize how deadly and self-defeating this "self-ennobling" is? And when are young politicians going to realize that what's wrong with the Democratic Party is nothing less than its continuing existence? To be sure, I share much more with Democrats than with Republicans - today's Republicans especially - but that does not blind me to the fact that the Party, as an association of actual individuals, can go nowhere but down, and that the only question is how long individual Democrats, by holding on to their personal power, will prolong the rule of right-wing-nuttery. I admire Senator Hillary Clinton; I voted for her in 2000 and will do so again next year. But any party that seriously proposes her as a presidential, or even vice-presidential candidate is simply delusional.

This week's Essay is by Sean Wilentz, and it clearly represents a sliver of research from his monumental The Rise of American Democracy. It is nowhere near as dire as its title, "The Rise of Illiterate Democracy," suggests. Rather, it compares the once robust contact between politicians and literary men (during the period covered in Rise) with today's mutual indifference. He's not talking about political novels - although there haven't been too many good ones lately; he's talking about men such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was described, in The Democratic Review, as a politician. As indeed he was. Everybody knows that he wrote The Scarlet Letter because a Whig victory had cost him his post at the Salem Custom House, but many prefer to imagine that he got the post in the first place from a rich and benevolent patron. That's true only in the sense that the Democratic Party was a rich and benevolent patron.

There is another, much longer essay in this week's Review, Barry Gewen's "State of the Art." An octet of recent books about art today provides the pretext for a lucid discussion of modernism, post-modernism, and the place of art in American society. I believe that it deserves its own entry, and I will try to get to it later this week.

Last week's Review offered a list of the year's hundred "notable" books. This has been distilled to a ten-best list. Nothing is going to make me try Haruki Murakami again; I found The Wild Sheep Chase one of the most annoying books ever. I do not begin to understand his appeal. That everybody would like On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, makes perfect sense, but this novel, if nowhere near as irritating as Mr Murakami's, added up to a big nothing. I found the situations and relationships altogether willed, and believed in none of them. Had the book been centered on Levi's identity problems, as a mixed-race adolescent ashamed of his privileges but probably not capable of living without them, I might have found some power in the book. Ms Smith writes very well, and even uses a couple of words that are new to me, but her central couple, Kiki and Howard, proved unable to sustain her literary pretensions. As for the nonfiction books, Tony Judt's Postwar catches my eye. I ought to avoid it, probably. Everything that I have read, either by Mr Judt (in The New York Review of Books), or about him, has presented an unpleasantly muscular thinker, an analyst with attitude and an impatience with the more common human sentiments. I gather that he has a blind spot where women are concerned, at least as political beings. All reviews have been favorable, but I don't need a book that in countless small ways will raise my blood pressure.

My candidate for Single Most Important Book of 2005 did not make the list, and that tells me a lot about middlebrows at the Times. It is the subject of the next entry.

December 04, 2005

Book Review

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

Taking on this week's Book Review is daunting. Instead of three or four novels, there are ten under review, a roundup of recent graphic fiction and the two volumes of Philip Roth that the Library of America has issued. Twenty one works of nonfiction are reviewed. And on top of all that, there are eight holiday roundups (photography, travel, and so on). By the time I'd finished reading the Review, I was sick of books.

Novels that sound interesting: Jim Lynch's The Highest Tide (Pat Walsh: "The author's declarative style and vivid imagery allow the science of the ocean to blend easily with its poetry. ... these small flaws do little to diminish the bittersweet joy that comes when finishing a strong novel by a fine writer."); Phone Rings, by Stephen Dixon (Sven Birkerts: "Violating every sacred canon of narrative construction, Dixon has nonetheless fashioned an intimate, wrenching picture of loss - how the impossibly great value of a life can be taken away and never brought back."); In Lucia's Eyes, by Arthur Japin and translated from the Nederlands by David Colmer (notwithstanding Kathryn Harrison's favorable review. This novel involves Casanova in Amsterdam); Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (Simon Baker: "Still more impressive is Iweala's ability to maintain not only our sympathy but our affection for his central character." Indeed, given that the hero is a child drawn into tribal warfare.); and Making It Up, by Penelope Lively (Reviewed by Roxana Robinson. Ms Lively has written a contrafactual memoir: what might have her life have been like had she taken different turns?);

As for the rest:

Continue reading "Book Review" »

November 27, 2005

Book Review

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

This week, there is a lot of interesting non-fiction. There is Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography, enthusiastically received by pop authorities Jane and Michael Stern.

When the Beatles began, it would have been unthinkable to read a well-written biography about rock 'n' roll performers that was as serious and thoroughly researched as an important book about Faulkner or Picasso or Mao. For better and for worse, the Beatles changed off that. Their evolution sent shock waves radiating into culture and commerce as they took rock 'n' roll from the periphery to the mainstream and gave pop music a gravity heretofore unknown.

In the Sterns' opinion, Mr Spitz book is indeed such a serious and thoroughly researched book. It also had them hooked in ten pages.

Then there's Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath, by Paul Berman. According to Johann Hari, this book demonstrates that student unrest in the Europe of the late Sixties and early Seventies was much more than a matter of riots accented by terrorism. "Those were the rancid afterbirth of the street protests. The baby itself, [Mr Berman] writes persuasively, grew into a vibrant European antitotalitarian tradition." That seems right to me; I only wish that it had been the case here in the United States as well, but our hippies were far less serious about anything than their European counterparts.

There's Jesus and Jahweh: The Names Divine, by Harold Bloom. This book is right up my alley, except that Harold Bloom's prose style is deeply unattractive. Mr Bloom distinguishes sharply between Jahweh, Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus Christ, arguing that they have nothing to do with one another, and he insists that there is no such thing as "Judeo-Christian" beliefs. I'd like a lot of my Christian friends to read this book. Joshua Rosen's review may just have to suffice for me.

Three books explore important black American careers. First is Jill Watts's Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award; reviewer Dana Stevens doesn't say so, but I've read that, in order to get into the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel to receive the award, the actress had to pass through the kitchen. The dilemma facing all black entertainers until very, very recently, was whether to be true to their black roots or to work at all, at a time when working meant caricaturing themselves. Hattie McDaniel worked out a compromise, but it was not good enough for many in the NAACP, and her Oscar didn't do her much good. (She got to reprise the role of Mammy in The Great Lie, an underrated Bette Davis vehicle.) Mr Stevens reviews this book together with Mel Watkins's Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry. Perry was an altogether less attractive person, grandiose and deferential at the same time. He appears to have owned a pink Rolls-Royce with his name spelled out on the boot hood - in neon. That must have been one of the earliest automotive applications of an inert gas.

A more redoubtable black American is the subject of Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin. Mr Franklin has combined scholarship and ardent advocacy over a long and eminent career. David Oshinsky writes,  

Franklin has studied his nation for nearly three-quarters of a century. His scholarship tells us that people must be judged by their willingness to remove the obstacles and disadvantages that oppress society's most vulnerable members. His conscience reminds us of how much remains to be done.

Now for the books that are not on my list. The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, by Mike Davis, has the misfortune to appear at a time when almost everybody is singing in the choir of the converted; the question is what to do, not whether to do something, and books such as this can't be saved even by the great writing that reviewer Matt Steinglass finds here. Nor am I going to read Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D Kaplan. David Lipsky astutely captures the problem with Mr Kaplan's thinking, which I'd noticed myself in various articles in The Atlantic: Mr Kaplan likes war.

Toward the book's end, Kaplan reflects that no to have participated in some kind of war was to be "denied the American experience," to be "not fully American." He continues, "the war on terror was giving two generations of Americans vivid memories." This might strike a reader as a somewhat more cosmopolitan notion that anything the elites could cook up at their "seminars and dinner parties." War as self-enhancement, as an experience not-to-be-missed. "The American experience," Kaplan writes, "was exotic, romantic, exciting, bloody and emotionally painful, sometimes all at once. It was a privilege, as well as great fun, to be with those who were still living it."

You can't beat that for catastrophic wrong-headedness - I hope. In his front-page review, John Simon argues that Richard Schickel's Elia Kazan: A Biography, is a book not-to-be-missed. Kazan made a lot of important pictures, among them A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but I've never really liked them, and the review suggests that the director was far too involved in issues of "manliness" to appeal to me.

According to Gregg Easterbrook, Benjamin M Friedman fails to make the case, in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, that liberal democratic society requires constant growth. That's all I needed to know. Richard Sandomir pulls of the stunt of making David Halbertstam's The Education of a Coach sound interesting to me - but the review of this new book about Bill Belichick will have to do.

There are only three novels in this week's issue. The Jungle Law, by Victoria Vinton, is about Rudyard Kipling's sojourn in Vermont. Mark Kamine's review failed to rouse my interest, as did Wendy Smith's look at Robb Forman Dew's latest, The Truth of the Matter. Both novels appear to be rather well-done, but just not to my taste. John Banville's The Sea is more problematic. A few years ago, I read and disliked another novel by Mr Banville, Eclipse. If reviewer Terrence Rafferty is to be believed, The Sea is a somewhat different production, at least at first. As it goes on, however, it reverts to Mr Banville's natural style.

What's strangest about The Sea is that the novel somehow becomes simpler and clearer as it gets more self-conscious: a consequence, I suppose, of its author dropping the pretense of being one kind of writer and giving into his authentic and much more complicated creative nature.

There is no Essay this week, just a Rick Meyrowitz cartoon suggesting the books that "hatchet job" Dale Peck might have given us instead of the "genial fantasy for children" that he actually wrote. They're almost all delicious: How to Cook Your Editor, Liizzie Borden Was An Amateur, Murder at Churlish Peeve, and The Twelve Stupidest Vegetables in My Garden.

Finally, in "Poetry Chronicle," Joshua Clover and Joel Brouwer review ten new collections. Of Mr Clover's five, two stood out for further exploration: The Life of a Hunter, by Michelle Robinson, and Company of Moths, by Michael Palmer. I'll let you know. Heather Fuller (Startle Response) David Baker (Midwest Eclogue) and Arthur Sze (Quipu) will require further advocacy. Of Mr Brouwer's five, the same outcome obtained: Simone Muench's Lampblack & Ash and Brian Turner's Here, Bullet got my attention; I had already heard good things about Mr Turner's verses on the themes of our Iraqi misadventure. Elizabeth Alexander (American Sublime), Adrian Castro (Wise Fish), and Patricia Ferrell (Thirty Years War) didn't catch my eye. I won't say more, because it's idiotic to measure a poem by extracts from a review. I don't know how grateful these poets will be for their somewhat crammed exposure.

November 20, 2005

Book Review

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

Nonfiction first, shall we? Alan Riding reviews Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation this week, exactly two months to the day after my enthusiastic entry. The call-out pretty much summarizes Mr Riding's casual grasp of Ms Craveri's important book: "It was shrewd: Parisian women invented a social game where they set all the rules." On the facing page, Jonathan Alter dismisses Mary Mapes's attempt, in Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privileges of Power, to explain away her disastrous rushing of the Texas National Guard story in last year's run-up to the election. Although the substance of the story about the President's shirking, during the Vietnamese War, was probably true, the slipshod documentation opened the door to right-wing attack. Even Dan Rather had to resign in the end. If I were Ms Mapes, I wouldn't be writing about my professional competence.

Roy Blount Jr, a funny man from the South whose humor usually eludes me, writes up Richard Porter's Crap Cars, a catalogue of the fifty worst cars ever made in modern times. Mr Porter writes with great brio, which more or less salvages his project from fatuity. According to John Leland's review of Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, by Peter Guralnick, the versatile musician proves to be as elusive as the humor of writing about automotive lemons.

But like Cooke's friends and associates, we are left trying to grasp a cipher. His cool what what the art historian Robert Farris Thompson calls "the mask of mind itself." We don't know how Sam felt about the white audiences he so methodically cultivated, or the women he so tirelessly took to bed; we can't measure the anger he kept hidden.

Take my advice, and beware the shape-shifting subjects of books of 750-page lengths!

Joe Queenan takes the words out of my mouth when he places Greg Critser's Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies in the category of books announcing that "the world is going to hell in a handbasket." Mr Queenan likes the book, although his ninth paragraph kicks the book off of my list. 

Because of the dry nature of the subject, Generation Rx is unlikely to replace Harlan Coben as bedtime reading. Moreover, while some details may be new, the overall theme - doctors are on the drug industry tab, Republican legislators view regulation as Stalinist, consumers have developed an almost Incan belief in the power of chemicals, lobbyists run everything - is not. Still, the book is a lively well-told tale, chock-full of fascinating tidbits that will bring a smile to the face of even the gloomiest Gus.

Gloomy Guses ought to spend their time pondering regulatory schemes that Republican legislators would not find Stalinist, and not reading books that, while making one smile, intensify one's feeling of powerlessness.

I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir, has an interesting title, once it's explained. Rafi Zabor is a jazz drummer who grew up in Brooklyn. According to reviewer Liesl Schillinger, I, Wabenzi is a long meditation the author's reaction on two traumas, one involving an abortion and the other the care of his ailing parents. Although Ms Schillinger complains that "spontaneity is both Zabor's strength and his liability," she seems to like the book. "After all, he's riffing on nothing smaller than the human experience..." So I give this week's "You First" prize to Mr Zabor's memoir. If you read it and like it enough to recommend it to me, I'll read it, no questions asked.

It was a close call, that award. It might easily have gone to One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick. Differing from Jarhead primarily in being the work of an officer, not an enlisted man (at least as I gather from the review), Mr Fick's book is a paean to competence, and, as such, an implicit condemnation of our way of waging war in Iraq.

Witch hunts simply doesn't interest me, which is why I'm not going to read Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century Tragedy, by Malcolm Gaskill. Mary Beth Norton's review fails to suggest any aspect of this new history of the Essex crusade of 1645-7, during England's Civil War, that would distinguish it from other accounts of humanity at its rock-bottom worst. Nor do I want to read about Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, by H W Brands. I'm with William L O'Neill: "Jackson's presidency left a lot to be desired."

In "Nonfiction Chronicle," Mark Lewis rounds up six books for short-shrift treatment. Here are the titles and, in parentheses, my reason for not reading each of them, stated succinctly.

Grant and Sherman: The Friendship That Won the Civil War, by Charles Bracelen Flood. (misleading title; nothing new.)

The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved, by Alan Dershowitz (a certain Harvard Law professor is full both of himself and of it.

My American Life: From Rage to Entitlement, by Price M Cobbs (Second runner-up for "You First" award. A noted black psychiatrist "tries to cram six decades of his life into 249 pages, and they won't fit.")

Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America, by Cass R Sunstein (I need to read about to find out?)

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons, by Samantha Barbas. (Ew.)

The Tulip and the Pope, by Deborah Larsen. (Third runner-up. Hey, I think I've found something. This week's most interesting sentence appears in this review: "Now a writer herself, [Larsen] recalls for us an era when life in a nunnery, for many women, was the only counterculture available.")

Three books that I'd like to read are Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, by Julia Briggs (reviewed by Curtis Sittenfeld, who cautions that this is not a book with which to approach Woolf's life for the first time); Geoff Dyer's book about photography, The Ongoing Moment (Richard B Roundwood writes that Mr Dyer "pulls off a string of shrewd, often original ideas ... about a group of artists whose work had until now seemed thoroughly digested); and The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate by Marjorie Williams, edited by Williams's husband, Timothy Noah (Williams comes off as an uncommonly appealing writer).

There are two books of or about poetry this week, and this will allow me to cross from "Nonfiction" to "Fiction and Poetry." Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker editor and poet, reviews two books about poet Jane Kenyon and Kenyon's Collected Poems. One of the "about" books is The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, by Kenyon's husband, poet Donald Hall; the other is Simply Lasting: Writers on Jane Kenyon, edited by Joyce Peseroff. The handful of examples of Kenyon's poetry are attractive, but since I'm in the middle of trying to come to grips with John Ashbery - probably by relaxing my grip - I beg to be excused. Nor can I take on Don Chiasson's Natural History, a collection of apparently feverishly hip poems. I'm not sure how to take reviewer Kay Ryan's last line, "It's the strangest thing how poetry that matters can be just an elephant's hair away from poetry that doesn't. Somebody at the Times must like Mr Chiasson, however, because his picture graces the review. Interestingly, it is a portrait; the photograph of Jane Kenyon shows her hard at work at the typewriter.

Gregory Cowles covers four novels in his "Fiction Chronicle." As is my wont, I provide the line from the review that made up my mind not to read each given title.

If The Sky Falls: Stories, by Nicholas Montemarano. ("...remarkable stories are united by their dyspeptic outlook and not much else...")

A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj. ("In the end, the book is like a music box: it's charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship, but you know more artful versions of the song exist.")

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, written and illustrated by Walter Moers, and translated by John Brownjohn. ("...further evidence ... that the Germans like their entertainment goofy and a bit bloated.")

The Mercy of Thin Air, by Ronlyn Domingue. ("Readers interested in heartbreaking ghost stories from New Orleans will do well to pick up a newspaper instead.")

The Elagin Affair: And Other Stories, by Ivan Punin, and translated by Graham Hattlinger. ("his writing veers between the melodramatic and the merely mellow.")

Of the four fictions given full treatment, Absolute Watchmen, by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons is an expensive comic book that Dave Itzoff didn't sell me on. Karoo Boy, Troy Blacklaws's apparently autobiographical account of enduring teen-aged hell in the "vast, desiccated hinterland" of South Africa known as the Karoo, thirty years ago, is making its first appearance here in paper, which means that it may well develop into a sleeper hit. Rob Nixon, however, feels that the central interracial relationship in the novel, between the hero and a retired black miner, feels "unearned" by the boy. More likely to appear on my bedside table is The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, a classic of Chinese literature by Han Bongqing (1856-1894) that is making its first appearance here in any kind of book, translated by the Eileen Chang, and revised and edited by Eva Hung. Sing-Song Girls is all about courtesans and their reckless, irresponsible clients. It sounds quite scrutable.

Finally, there is Witold Gombrowcz's Cosmos, translated into English by Danuta Borchardt. Reviewer Neil Gordon writes,

Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism's literary competition - perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.

Yes, one of those guilt-inducing books that really do make you feel better for having read them, thus justifying the nagging of Sontag, Updike & Co. You first?

This week's Essay is by Jonathan Lethem. "Italo for Beginners" appears to argue for an anthology of the "best" Calvino, so that newbies will be sure to confront what the late Italian writer's dedicated admirers savor most, while regretting the interposition of editorial assistance between writer and reader. In short, Mr Lethem seems to be conducting an argument with himself in public. Unfortunately, he doesn't finish it.

November 13, 2005

Book Review

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

Before I look at this week's Book Review, I want to say that the author of one of the books that I dismissed last week wrote to me to suggest that I reconsider. As it happened, I was in no position to refuse, and I'm very grateful for his persistence, as his book is a great read. I hope to discuss this further on Tuesday. For the moment, I want you all to know that I am an ardent flip-flopper when it comes to revising ignorant assessments.

Continue reading "Book Review" »

November 06, 2005

Book Review

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

Fiction this week is not very alluring. I must confess to a dislike of any literature that remotely partakes of "magic realism." This renders me unfit to say anything about Memories of My Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Marquez, except that I'm not going to read it. Terrence Rafferty's review is somewhere between enthusiastic and respectful. At least in Bliss Broyard's account, Benjamin Markovits's novel, Fathers and Daughters would not be a book to look forward to if it were in my pile. Mr Markovits uses the story of Lot's wife to consider "how candidly we're willing to look at ourselves and the people close to us, whether we're helped or hurt by such frank appraisals." A real question for rude, self-regarding people, perhaps, but not an issue that comes up for me. Sarah Hall's The Electric Michelangelo doesn't come across very well either. Reviewer Susan Cokal writes,

The sheer scope of years covered in any bildungsroman can make dramatic tension difficult to sustain. Perhaps as a result, Hall's novel is short on event and long on exposition; it shows, but it tells far more.

Scott Turow - not on my list - has come out with something a little different, an intergenerational tale of a judge advocate general who manages to get court-martialed during the Battle of the Bulge, and his son's search for the truth. Joseph Kanon takes the opportunity to hail Mr Turow as "a bourgeois writer in the best sense of the word - his work is grounded in faithfully depicted realism." I'll take note. (This is not one of the Book Review's better weeks.) Finally - as if in counterpoint to Mr Rafferty's review, Lenora Howard weighs Shorts, a collection of stories by Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet (translated by Ezra E Fitz) and finds it wanting. Mr Fuguet has publicly repudiated the "boom" project of the older, now vanishing school of advanced Latin American novelists; he is much concerned with the difficulties of interaction with the North Americans. If this is a challenge to Mr García Marquez, it is not a success.

I'm tempted to claim that I found all the non-fiction titles so interesting that you'll have to wait for me to read them first. (The only books that get coverage in this space are the one's that I'm not going toread.) It has been a grinding weekend (I really do hope that this is not coming to you in Times New Roman), and I'd rather be reading Bait and Switch, which I've finally got round to. In fact, however, there are only three books that I can honestly claim to look forward to. They are Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (reviewed by Civil War historian James M McPherson); On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, by William B. Irvine (Kathryn Harrison); and America's Constitution: A Biography, by Akhil Reed Amar. As previously announced, I am not buying any more books for a while, so I can't promise to read these, but I'll be happy if somebody gives one to me for my birthday (6 January). The remaining fourteen are all off. Here's why, in one sentence or less:

¶ Reviewer William Saletan claims that John B Eisenberg, author of Using Terri: The Religious Right's Conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights, and briefly a lawyer in the case, is just as guilty of using the late Ms Schiavo as his targets are.

¶ According to musician Greg Sandow, Edmund Morris shouldn't be writing about music, much less trying to make the case for Beethoven.

¶ Funny man Henry Alford fails to make The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman, sound like something that I need as long as I've already got Our Dumb Century.

¶ According to reviewer Bryan Burrough, Louis Freeh's My FBI: Bringing Donw the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton, and Fighting the War on Terror (with Howard Means) is not the serious book that we had a right to expect but surprisingly "low-cal."

One feels bad criticizing a man who dedicated himself so selflessly to public service. The truth is, the nation could use more people like Louis Freeh. But that can't obscure the fact that in the end Freeh's best wasn't good enough, and neither, sadly, is his book.

¶ According to Douglas Brinkley, James R Hansen's First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong is about the celebrated astronaut. While I believe in the importance of a space-exploration program, I personally hate to fly.

¶ Local son Robert Long has written a book about the artists who made the Hamptons interesting as well as glamorous, De Kooning's Bicycle: Artists and Writers in the Hamptons. I would read this book, but only if asked to do so. Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart covered this territory well enough for me.

Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v Gore, by James T Patterson, is per se premature, notwithstanding Charles Peters's welcoming review. 

Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Lewis Stevenson, by Claire Harman, is a book that I'm just not ready for. A fan of A Child's Garden of Verses, I never read anything else by this interesting man. Under the circumstances, reading a biography would be ghoulish.

Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, by Scott Poulson-Bryant, really is about penis length. Is anybody ready for a book about this tragic subject? The review is fun, sort of, with gay novelist E Lynn Harris skirting the perils of writing about men sizing up one another's dicks (I'm sorry!) for a "family newspaper." I don't know whether to laugh or run screaming from the room.

¶ Jerome Karabel's The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton doesn't, at least according to David Brooks's review, add much to a spate of interesting articles that have appeared in Harper's, The Atlantic, and, most scorchingly, The New Yorker.

¶ Vikram Seth's memoir of an uncle who married a German Jew and settled down in England, Two Lives, probably does not deserve to be in this space. I have nothing to say against it. (I've read reviews other than Pankaj Mishra's and been piqued.) Don't be surprised if you find me writing about this down the road. But so far down the road that I can't count the intervening pages.

¶ Leo Damrosch's Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius may be a worthwhile study, but it's about the man whom I would place, if I were Dante, at the Very Bottom. Rousseau had a genius for telling rich and idle people what they wanted to hear. I have always been amazed by his renown.

Dean and Me: (A Love Story), By Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, reviewed by Stephanie Zacharek.

Monkeyluv: And Other Essays on Our Lives as Animals, by Robert M Sapolsky, is perhaps something that I ought to read, Jamie Shreeve's appealing review tells me. But I don't want to. I don't like my primate cousins much, and I think it's odd that they're sources of insight about human nature. What was anybody thinking, that studying chimps might correct?

A trifle dyspeptic, I confess. But the Book Review was a slog this weekend, and I didn't finish reading it until this morning. Characteristic of the flavor of this edition is Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Political Fictions," about novels written by politicians. I beg you. 

October 30, 2005

Book Review

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

There's a special selection of recent books on the subject of our misadventure in Iraq. James Traub reviews a pair of compilations, one of essays by writers on the right, The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq, edited Gary Rosen, the other, from the left, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, edited by Thomas Cushman. Neither of these books is on my list, because the question of just war simply doesn't arise in connection with the mess that we've made. The war that was beginning when the Mission was proclaimed to be Accomplished was not supposed to take place, because no war was foreseen. We would "cakewalk" to Baghdad and establish a democracy. Just like that. The question that did arise in connection with Iraq was this: how did a suit like Rummy overrule Pentagon experience by throwing out its exhaustive logistic procedures, the TPFDL. (If you will take the time to read Seymour M Hersh's reporting on the "tip fiddle" in The New Yorker, you'll be excused from reading the rest of this entry.) Reporter Michael Goldfarb has written a book that reviewer Dexter Filkins finds very moving: Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, a biography of sorts of his late translator, a lecturer in anatomy who struggled for democracy only to be cut down by reactionary insurgents. According to Mr Filkins, Ahmad Shawkat's tragedy is anything but isolated.

And now, today, many of these Iraqis, if not most of them, are dead. They have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown in ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq's political class explains the difficulties of the country's rebirth. The good guys are dead.

Nice work, Rummy. George Packer has collected his reportage in The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer. Fareed Zakaria joins Mr Packer in bemoaning the consequences of going to war on the cheap. In Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadows of America's War, Anthony Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, writes of the impact of the war on ordinary Iraqis. In the words of reviewer Ben Macintyre, "Night Draws Near is a tormented human collage, a portrait of the grinding, quotidian conflict endured by ordinary Iraqis, struggled to make sense of the senseless. Finally, in the Essay at the back of the review, "The Reporter's Library," reporter Robert F Worth tells us what the pros are reading for background material. He gives pride of place to Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959), but he notes the preeminent importance of David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace.  

In other non-fiction, Jessica Hendra gets back at her funny-man father, Tony Hendra - who gave us an earnest testimonial to the spiritual guidance of "Father Joe," a Benedictine monk who helped him through a rough patch - in How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir (with Blake Morrison). If there is one thing that I don't want to read about, it's children's claims of parental abuse, but it would seem that Mr Hendra has all but asked for his daughter's. Reviewer Jeanne Safer finds that How to Cook Your Daughter "barely rises above pedestrian reportage." In Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, Nate Blakeslee recounts the horrific outburst of racism that led to the arrest of almost fifty black Texans in a small Panhandle town. The charges of drug-running were completely spurious, and it took teams of lawyers and activists to free the innocents. Sara Mosle gives the book an A. (Readers of Bob Herbert's column will remember Tulia well.) Reviewer Jim Windolf likes Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era. This may prove to be a must-read, and I'm marking for future acquisition. "Brill Building" is a useful collective name for the folks who wrote the songs between the peak of Elvis and the arrival of the Beatles. 

Until this book, the story of these interrelated songwriters had been told in piecemeal fashion, via memoirs, magazine articles and four separate documentaries for the A&E network's "Biography" series. Here we get the whole tale in a single entertaining passage

In Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, filmmaker Karin Muller writes about her search for harmony while shooting a documentary. Lesley Downes finds the book charming, but she does not persuade me to override my disinclination to go culture-hopping, which is what Ms Muller seems to do. The most interesting thing about Toni Bentley's review of Women's Letters: America From the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J Adler, is Ms Bentley's opening report:

"Unless a man is taking out my garbage or making love to me," I recently overheard a wife and mother remark, "I'm not really interested in his company. Women are simply more interesting."

I'm not sure how to take this. Is it a restatement of traditional views shared by both sexes since the dawn of time? Or does it mean that women are now interesting ways that men are, only more so? I would read American Letters if someone were to give it to me. I would not read Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption, by Christopher Kennedy Lawford, under any circumstances. What a tribe of louts the Kennedys turned out to be! From the other side of the last century's most fascinating union, we have What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill, the widow of Ms Onassis' nephew, Anthony. Jodi Kantor has good things to say about the latter book, but I remain untempted. Nor am I tempted by two books reviewed by Buzz Bissinger, The Last Coach: A Life of Paul "Bear" Bryant, by Allen Burra, and The Lion in Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football, by Frank Fitzpatrick. I might have been tempted by Dylan Jones's iPod, Therefore I Am: Thinking Inside the White Box, but Dave Itzkoff's impatient review took care of that. 

As for fiction, three novels get full- or half-page treatment while five are rewarded with capsules. Only one is on my list: Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. This book has garnered interesting reviews all round, and Alice Truax's is no exception. I wish I could read it right now, but it will have to take its place in the flight queue, which already stretches from here to Boston. Katharine Weber and Bruce Bawer make negative cases for the books under their review, respectively Pigtopia, by Kitty Fitzgerald, and Fallen, by David Maine. Pigtopia? Are you kidding? As for Fallen, it's a novelization of that old Cain-and-Abel story, that in Mr Bawer's view, fails by taking for granted emotions and concepts that were, er, new at the time and presumably nameless. Show, don't tell - isn't that how it goes?

According to Douglas Wolk's capsule review, Wolf Point, by Edward Falco, might make an interesting read - after Truth and Consequences - bien sûr! "Falco's prose is cold and brisk, with occasional flashes of hard-boiled eloquence, and the story hurtles like brakeless truck toward its bloody denouement." Diary of a Married Call Girl, by Tracy Quan, sounds as objectionable as Mr Lawford's memoir. In The Monsters of Gramercy Park, Danny Leigh "sometimes promises  depth he can't deliver." Sniper, by Pavel Hak, appears to have been translated by the author too directly from its French original, while still managing to sound flat and affectless. Finally, there's Faith For Beginniners, by Aaron Hamburger, which according Mr Wolk is marred by a sour tone.

According to a note, opening chapters of The Assassins' Gate and What Remains are available at

October 23, 2005

Book Review

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

Who is Scarlet Thomas? I don't believe that I've registered her name before - possibly because of the "Scarlet" thing. That may change. Dee Mondschein's review of Ms Thomas's PopCo sounds very interesting. So does Fatema Ahmed's review of Yiyun Li's A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, a collection of stories on Chinese and Chinese-American themes. Otherwise, there's no fiction of interest this week. Two silly-sounding books about growing up privileged, The Inheritance, by Annabel Dilke (reviewed by Sarah Ferguson), and Nothing Serious, by Justine Lévy (translated by Charlotte Mandell and reviewed by Judith Warner), share page 18.  Mary Gaitskell's Veronica is a book about fashion victims and their predators that, according to Meghan O'Rourke, "constitutes some of the most incisive fiction writing around." But I read and disliked Bad Behavior, the author's first book, and Ms Gaitskell is no longer on my list. Salman Rushdie is not on my list, either. I read The Satanic Verses in a state of boggled cluelessness: why was this book being talked about? In case I have not said so lately, I'll repeat that I loathe "magic realism." I loathe it the way patriarchs loathe their wives' infidelity, and for much the same reasons. Consorting in public with the imaginable but the impossible is disgusting. So I rather guiltily enjoyed Laura Miller's quietly savage review of Mr Rushdie's latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. Even if I were open to the opportunities of Mr Rushdie's fiction, I might well be put off by the following cracks:

(A novel that affects to gossip worshipfully about its own characters is a tiresome thing indeed.)

Rushdie has no gift for pastoralism and he evokes the fabled natural beauties of Kashmir as if he were a man who knew them primarily through the medium of embroidery motifs.

Perhaps this thinness results from Rushdie's being essentially a comic writer, directed to less congenial themes by history of ambition, a commedia dell'arte player cast in a tragedy. The invention of grand or profound characters doesn't come naturally to him....

While I was reading this, I was musing on the fact that Shalimar hadn't followed in the footsteps of other novels by Mr Rushdie, in storming the Book Review's front page. What we have on the front page instead is Times columnist Nicholas D Kristof's review of Mao: The Unknown Story, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors, who are married, have devoted their work to the cause of completely demythologizing Mao Zedong. Even Mr Kristof thinks that they might have gone too far! That's the funny part. For split thinking, compare

And Mao says some remarkable things about the peasants he was supposed to be championing. When they were starving in the 1950's, he instructed: "Educate peasants to eat less, and have more thin gruel. The State should try its hardest ... to prevent peasants eating too much." In Moscow, he offered to sacrifice the lives of 300 million Chinese, half of the population at the time, and in 1958 he blithely declared of the overworked population: "Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die."


I agree that Mao was a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects, and this book captures that side better than anything ever written. But Mao's legacy is not all bad. Land reform... [blah blah blah]

"That side"? Can monsters have "good sides"? I think not. I doubt that I'll read this book, simply because I have already arrived at the authors' conclusions by other means, but I do recommend it.

Two new books about Shakespeare are reviewed by John Simon, perhaps our most acerbic critic. He likes them both, though. Of Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare: The Biography and James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, he writes,

Needless to say, there is a good deal of overlapping, as there must be, but nobody who has read the one will fail to find pleasure and profit in the other.

But all I could think while reading the review was that surely its more important to read Shakespeare than to read about him. There ought to be a rule: for every hour that you spend on books about the Bard, you must spend ten actually reading what he actually wrote himself. In the late Spalding Gray's Life Interrupted: The Unifinished Monologue, you get to do both, authorwise; according to Charles Isherwood, this posthumous publication includes essays by friends of the noted storyteller as well as a draft of the monologue that he was working on when he died. Gray's suicide, sadly, was not a surprise; the surprise is that Abraham Lincoln didn't throw himself off the Staten Island Ferry in the middle of winter. According Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, this country's number-two president was inspired by a mental disorder to achieve greatness. Reviewer Patricia Cohen isn't convinced, and neither am I.

And while depressives may be politically acute, creative and spiritual, they don't have a monopoly on these attributes.

There are two books about ancient history. One is poet Robert Pinsky's The Life of David. Reviewer William Deresiewicz writes,

That David was himself a poetry turns out to be secondary. In fact, disappointingly, Pinsky spends little time on his subject's poetic achievement. Instead, he uses the biblical account, supplemented in places by legendary and rabbinic material, to make David present to the reader in a way the Bible cannot do.

The wrongheadedness of this exercise amazes me. It's not unlike reading about Shakespeare instead of reading Shakespeare himself. Whatever the real King David was like - if there was such a man - the Bible severely distorts his career for tendentious purposes that were conceived long after his death. To use such "materials" to compose a snapshot analysis of an historical figure is preposterous. I'm reminded that Israeli archeologists have disappointed their compatriots, not for lack of trying, by failing to produce the slightest evidentiary support for the grand things that Scripture says about David and Solomon.

The other history book, while rather more reality-based, seems even more determined to make a case. Paul Johnson writes that Victor Davis Hanson's A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War is aimed squarely at believers in American superpowers. Mr Johnson wants all of us to read the book, because

Americans, fortunate in their power and prosperity, have many unavoidable responsibilities in the world, and in discharging them should study the past, even the remote past, to find any guidance it has to offer.

I feel a choice coming on. Either I can let that stand, or I can burst in a shower of arguably unpatriotic remarks. Perhaps I can simply say that the guidance that Mr Johnson seeks for Americans is not going to come from case studies.

Part of me would really like to read Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall. Tim Folger's review makes this daunting title appear to be very approachable. If I were younger, I'd take it on. And I may take it on yet. But not on the strength of coverage in the Book Review. My life already has too many dimensions.

The concluding essay really deserves a separate entry. Elizabeth Royte's "Publish and Perish," a sort of twelve-step guide to the agonies of a newly-published author. It concludes with a remark by writer John Seabrook.

"The beginning of acceptance," Seabrook said, "is when you realize that the reason your book isn't in bookstores isn't because it's sold out. It's not there because the store never ordered it in the first place."


October 16, 2005

Book Review

Making my life easier, the Book Review spouts quite a few good reviews this week. Because this feature is about the books that I don't plan to read, I don't have to say much about the ones that I do. I'd have read Walter Kirn's Mission to America no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it, and Mark Costello's piece on Karen Olsson's Waterloo pricked my ears to a new voice. Amy Tan's Saving Fish From Drowning gets a discouraging review from Andrew Solomon, of all people, so I'll have to see what other people say. A collection of stories, In Case We're Separated, by Alice Mattison, sounds interesting, if perhaps a bit Too Jewish. Rachel Cusk's In The Fold looks like a book that I'll have to examine at Barnes & Noble for the quality of the sentences; Ada Calhoun's favorable review doesn't tell me what I need to know. The Other Shulman, by Alan Zweibel, and Seven Lies, by James Lasdun, reviewed by Neil Genzlinger and Ken Kalfus respectively, are the only two works of fiction that I can cross off with ease. Shulman is about an impossible middle-aged man, and Lies appears to be misconceived.

As for non-fiction, there are several inviting books. There's Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. This may be the book that will relieve of confirm my misgivings about Alison Weir, a writer who has managed, without my having read a word of her prose, to strike me as a romance novelist posing as an historian. The Isabella in question is not the famous Spanish duarch but the mother of Edward III of England, whose descent would spark the Hundred Years' War - the most unnecessary military engagement that I've ever heard of. Also interesting is Summer Doorways, a memoir by poet W S Merwin. Tempting but not tempting enough are J Anthony Froude: The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian, by Julia Markus (covered by Walter Olson) and White Savage: Williiam Johnson and the Invention of America, by Fintan O'Toole (Caleb Crain). I'm eternally grateful to Mr Olson for attesting that "Froude" rhymes with "food," but the subtitle is, in the end, far too desperate. As for William Johnson, he was a pre-Revolutionary Irishman who consorted among the Mohawk; that's two strikes right there. Alana Newhouse's review of The Tiger in the Attic: Memories of the Kinderstransport and Growing Up English, by Edith Milton, left me wondering what my women friends will make of the book; ditto Louise Jarvis Flynn's review of Holly Morris's Adventure Divas: Searching the Globe for a New Kind of Heroine.

Do I want to read about Theodore Roosevelt's expedition up the River of Doubt? No. So Candice Millard's book is not on my list, despite Bruce Barcott's good review. I've said it before and I'll say it again: my idea of "roughing it" is staying at home.

There are three "important" titles in this week's Review. The one that I may buy is Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery, by Helen Vendler. If there's anyone who can save verse for me, it's Helen Vendler. I still haven't finished her last book, Coming of Age as a Poet, and I've never given Shakespeare's sonnets the attention that she claims for them, but I'm still (just) open to the argument that "poetry" is primarily found in "verse." I'll probably feel guilty about not reading Jed Perl's New Art City, a study of New York's colossal role in the unfolding of modern art, and Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt. John Updike's lavish review of Mr Perl's book, however, failed to persuade me that modernism is worth thinking about; more and more it seems to be no more than a bad dream from which we shall all soon awaken. And I haven't forgotten Mr Perl's opinion of painter John Currin. Mr Judt's essays in The New York Review of Books, notable as they are, have convinced me that he is somebody whom I should heartily dislike were I to meet him: if there's one type of person I can't stand to be in the same room with, it's a highly literate Man's Man. Anthony Gottlieb's review manages to cast little light on the book itself, but I decided against Postwar, ironically I suppose, while reading Alan Ryan's review in the NYRoB. The following sentence did it:

One might take a more generous view. It was, among other things, a time when large numbers of people, women particularly - and women do not get very close attention in Postwar - began to ask whether the prosperity of the previous decade had brought them commensurate happiness.

The last-page Essay, by Jonathan Tepperman, is about foreign-policy books. It contrasts the Big Idea offerings of Natan Sharansky and Niall Ferguson with Realist offerings by Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinsky, and Nancy Soderberg. Mr Tepperman is almost as impatient with the former as I am.

After 9/11, the president seemed to fall for the big idea. The intervening years, however, have not been kind to his black-and-white idealism. Maybe it's time to bring back boring, and put big ideas back on the bookshelf.


October 09, 2005

Book Review

Joan Didion stars in this week's Book Review. Not only does her new book, The year of Magical Thinking, get a cover story, written by poet Robert Pinsky, but there's Rachel Donadio's three-page interview (sort of) as well. I'll be buying a copy of the book tomorrow night at Barnes & Noble, after Ms Didion's reading, so that's that as far as this entry is concerned. The other book that I'm not going to talk about here - because I've already read it - is Leslie Savan's Slam Dunks and No Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever. In a textbook case of editorial prejudice, this book was given to PJ O'Rourke to review. Once funny, Mr O'Rourke is now a crabby, dyspeptic Republican who can be counted upon to complain about anything. Assigning the book to him was the work of someone who wanted to see Ms Savan's interesting book panned. It's that simple. Stay tuned.

Other non-fiction reviews include A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester. I have stayed away from Mr Winchester, guided perhaps by magical thinking. His book about the madman and the OED looked 'way too cute. Reviewer Bryan Burrough is deadly about Crack:  

If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.

Ouch! Mr Burrough softens up later, conceding that the book might have been more appealing under a less objective title, but I wouldn't be reading it anyway. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, by Mary Roach, the author of the best-selling Stiff, looks like a good read for readers interested in cranks. Of whom I am not one. Lynn Freed's memoir of the impact of her South African upbringing upon her writing life, Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home is a book that I might have been drawn to had anyone but fashion writer Holly Brubach reviewed it; Ms Brubach contrives to endow the book with a ghastly self-satisfaction. Two history books, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C Mann, and Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850, by Maya Jasanoff,  would be welcome if there were not too many books and too little time. Ms Jasanoff's premise appears to be that imperialism manifested itself not just in authoritarian control but in the quasi art of collecting. In this view, the great museums of the West are the repository of hunting trophies. This is an intriguing idea.

And yet we might ask what they really learned, those crowds that gazed upon the lot stacked in the British Museum or upon the Belzoni's Egyptian Hall in Picadilly. More than ever, Europeans saw themselves at the center of the civilized word. That, after all, is the grand illusion empire tends to breed.

This would have been nicer if reviewer Mark Mazower had taken cognizance of the fact that today's happier minds understand that the civilized world has no center at all. Both his review and Ms Jasanoff's book are exponents of cultural repentance. Finally, in Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, Frans de Waal, according to Temple Grandin ("a person with autism"), plays the Mars/Venus game by lining up humanity with its two closest cousins, the hardy but patriarchal chimpanzees and the affectionate but stress-averse bonobos. I was not surprised to learn that

When bombs fell on Munich during World War II, de Waal tells us, all the bonobos died of heart failure, but all the chimps survived.

Ms Grandin's review seems to capture everything that is important about Mr de Waal's book, if you know what I mean.

This week's fiction includes novels by Joyce Carol Oates (Missing Mom), who is not on my list, and by Neil Gaiman (Anansi Boys), who is probably never going to be not on my list. The difference between these positions is that I have actually read something by Ms Oates - Them - and hated it. (The juxtaposition of lurid situations and lifeless writing was really revolting.) Of Mr Gaiman's writing I may die an innocent man. Charles Taylor's review might be somewhat less than coherent, but I can tell well enough that Mr Gaiman is not my sort of writer.

The tales of Anansi outwitting his foes leave you feeling you've eaten something heavy and sugary. There's an Uncle Remus folksiness to the stories that sends the airy blitheness of the farce plummeting down to earth.

There is another novel about Oz by Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked. This one, Son of a Witch, is about Elphaba's little boy, Liir. Sophie Harrison's review makes me wonder why the book was covered by the Book Review at all. It seems to be nothing more than another piece of best-selling metapop, and Ms Harrison doesn't seem to realize that it ought to have been tackled as a Guilty Pleasure - Judith Krantz for the bookish. Just because it's a book and you have to read it doesn't make it okay. Lucy Ellman inflicts a brutal review upon The Pagoda in the Garden, by Wendy Lesser. Two snippets:

This book by the author of the Threepenny Review is like a novel-writing kit: inside are a few rudimentary characters, plot lines in need of development, the choice of three possible eras and three writing styles, bags of banal banter, a small assortment of intellectual interjections and the bare bones of jokes. Not bothering to read the instructions, Wendy Lesser has excitedly dumped all this stuff straight on to the page. She'll be painting by numbers next!

Think that's bad? Try this:

Lesser also laughs at her own jokes, presenting her charmless heroines as witty and alerting us to any "levity," as she stiffly calls it, that may have issued from them.

I don't know enough about Lucy Ellman to gauge the O'Rourkitude of having asked her to review this novel, but I'm glad that my name isn't Wendy Lesser.

Five novels get capsule treatment in Chelsea Cain's "Fiction Chronicle." They all sound ideal for a convalescent. There are two Anitas, Shreve and Diamant, writers whom I've wondered about but never gotten to know; Ms Shreve seems to occupy territory adjacent to Joanna Trollope's. I would have to have been weakened by a serious illness to get through anything by Stephen King, a fabricator who knows that most people, sadly, want to get the story without having to read it. Martha Southgate's Third Girl From the Left may well be a worthy novel, but I reject the proposition that "there's just about nothing cooler than a soul sister in 1970's Los Angeles." Kim Ponders's The Art of Uncontrolled Flight appears to be the novelization her experience as "one of the first women to fly in a war zone." If someone I trusted recommended it, I'd read it in a heartbeat.

James Atlas's essay about biography, "My Subject, Myself," compares the different approaches to biography that prevail on either side of the Pond. The Americans produce monumental and apparently objective tomes that document their subjects' every laundry list. The British are more casual and familiar, and they rely on the much better term, "Life." What a difference there is between The Life of Johnson and "the biography of Samuel Johnson." Not ever British biographer has been in the room with his or her subject in the way that Boswell was, but you wouldn't know it from the easy tone of books such as Eminent Victorians. Mr Atlas ventures a suggestion about the difference between Here and There that adds to my evidence for the proposition that Americans are Germans who speak English:

To begin with, our literary culture is hindered by a division-of-labor mentality that fails to encourage the versatility and sophisticated amateurism so natural to the English temperament.

Conscience obliges me to return to Brian Burrough's bad review of Simon Winchester's book. The piece could easily be read as a critique of blogging itself, or at least of blogging as I pursue it.

At the risk of appearing doctrinaire, I have trouble saying what this book actually is. It is not a memoir, a geology text or a narrative history, though it contains elements of all three. Rather, it seems to be Winchester's ruminations on things already researched by others, wrapped in lectures on geological arcana. It's the kind of book where an author spreads the paint around - that is, goes wandering down endless back alleys in hopes of finding something interesting, or at least a Halibut Bay oyster. Sometimes Winchester finds a nugget, a metaphoric lost wallet. Other times he spends page after page sorting through garbage.

I'll bear this in mind.

October 02, 2005

Book Review

The late Elias Canetti has posthumously published another memoir, Party in the Blitz: The English Years (translated by Michael Hofmann). It has been given the boiling-oil treatment by Clive James.

On the threshold of death's door, Canetti saw nothing to be worried about when he examined his conscience. On this evidence, he couldn't even find it. Instead, he wrote a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions.

I'm grateful for this review not least because, for years, I've mixed up Canetti, Primo Levi, and Italo Svevo. Canetti, it appears, wasn't Italian in any way at all. I won't confuse him with anyone else ever again.

I read Joyce Carol Oates's review of Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink, by David Margolick. I did. It's about boxing, right? Nevertheless, I read the review, something I wouldn't have done if I hadn't undertaken this new feature. What will remain with me from Ms Oates's  piece is the fact that, while Joe Louis went on to be world famous and broke, Max Schmeling, awarded a Coca-Cola bottling license after World War II (he had never signed up with the Nazis, despite Hitler's adulation), wound up filthy rich. Ms Oates also demonstrates that prizefighting is a watcher's game. Joe Louis learned, from his mistakes in 1935, how to flatten Schmeling in the first round in 1938. But nothing about the review tempted me to rethink boxing. It still ought to be - surreptitious, like cock-fighting.

Geoffrey Wolff is full of praise for Ron Powers's Mark Twain: A Life. Twain is an exemplary American not because he captured the ambivalences of the United States before anybody else did but because he got away with doing so so well that it took critics fifty years to stop seeing stars. My personal problem is that Mark Twain reminds me of my maternal grandfather, whom I always thought of as a clever bully. So I'm much more likely to read Adam Phillips's Going Sane: Maps of Happiness. Mr Phillips - Doctor? - has a courageous faith in the curative powers of calling spades spades. He thinks that we ought to stop associating "sanity" with "zero risk." Maybe that's what our American problem is! Believing that bankers represent "sanity," we flee into excess and recklessness. Lawyer Charles R Morris, on the contrary, moonlights to produce The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J P Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. The subtitle alone tells you to stay away. The Review prints portraits of each of the four principals. Rockefeller comes off as looking - French (as in Huguenot). And Morgan is really good-looking! Of course the photo was taken before his skin disease, rosacea, blew his nose up into an unsightly appliance. Andrew Carnegie, lovingly remembered for his many New York libraries (locals had to buy the real estate first), stopped, we're told, at nothing to make his fortune. Enfin, A book for businessmen. I've held in my hands New York Burning: Liberty Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan more than a few times. Jill Lepore's look at an irrational outbreak that, numerically at least, outworsened the Salem witch trials, fifty years later, seems nevertheless to be just a tad too trendy for my taste. And there's something else: I don't like to be reminded of what a grubby outpost this island was in 1740, with the English and the Nederlanders coexisting in unseemly commerce. But it was nice of the Book Review to enlist Gotham pro Francis X Clines to write the review. Don't Get Too Comfortable, by David Rakoff,  may become indispensable, and then again it may not. Jennifer S Lee's mostly favorable review pushes the author closer to Sedaris/Vowell country.

Gary Rosen reviews Robert Wuthnow's America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity with a tone-deafness that may mirror the author's. It's a fact that most Christians don't know anything about Islam, and the same goes for everybody else, mutatis mutandis. But the differences between all "religious" people and their secular opposites always come down to the same thing: sex.

We stage protests over abortion, gay rights and stem cell research, denounce one another's views of human origins and even vote differently depending on how often we set foot in a house of worship.

When are the mainstream media going to wake up to the fact that religion, as traditionally understood, is simply not the issue? As if to make up for this dual insensitivity (writer and reviewer), M G Lord offers a provocative final essay about the feminism of Robert A Heinlein. Who'd a thunk it?

As for fiction, Eric Weinberger reviews The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders. I've already bought that book, so there's nothing more to say here. John Darnton has tried to write a Rule of Four that makes the utterly lovable Charles Darwin into a nefarious villain. When will this madness stop? If you think I'm going to read Liesl Schillinger's review of Lipstick Jungle, by Candace Bushnell, and Everyone Worth Knowing, by Lauren Weisberger, you're visiting the wrong blog. Caryl Philips, writing a promising novel based on an early twentieth-century vaudevillian, Bert Willaims, gets a grudging review from Brooke Allen. Witness

Dancing in the Dark is filled with compelling factual nuggets. But when Phillips frees his imagination and exercises his license as a novelist, the book loses force.


Dancing in the Dark is riveting when it recreates mores and social conventions our culture has done its best to forget, but Phillips's portrait of Bert Williams is not very convincing.

I know that I ought to take Stephen Metcalf's review of Rick Moody's The Diviners more seriously. But one quoted passage from the novel itself was all that  it took to preclude this book from my reading list: 

Light upon all these trenches and all these scars and striations of ocean floor marking the subduction of tectonic plates, where the molten earth bubbles up and makes its presence known in the indigo surface of the ocean.

Oh, dear, no. (Adorno?)

Two really serious novelists have offerings this week, and I can't do justice to either. Francine Prose's is about Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I may be too young for this book, or I may be wishing that Arthur Danto had written it. I'm having, it's true, a bad time with "homoeroticism" these days; I can't figure out what it means. I mean, men are as gorgeous as women, and why not? What's the problem? As for J M Coetzee's Slow Man, I have sort of made a point of not reading Mr Coetzee ever since someone gave me Michael K. This country that I live in is too screwed up for me to be taking on South Africa as well.  

If I've overlooked a nephew's reverent portrait of a gangland uncle, Blood Relation, by Eric Konsigsberg, well, that's because it's very late. You didn't think I was waiting for Sunday to write this, did you?  

September 25, 2005

Book Review

Note: The freshman-orientation intensity of this year's The New Yorker Festival has left your correspondent prostrate. Nevertheless, his determination and commitment to this new feature of the Daily Blague has kept him at his desk for nearly two hours of unremitting funk. He thanks Handel for the violin sonatas that have made the work proceed more comfortably than it would have done otherwise. He is glad that you could not hear his continual whining of Do I have to?

There's a lot of interesting stuff in the Book Review this week, but nothing that calls out to me for instant purchase. In fiction, there E L Doctorow's The March, reviewed by Walter Kirn. The March is an historical novel that recounts the horrors of Sherman's march through Georgia in 1864. Mr Doctorow is not on my list; I haven't read anything since Ragtime, which I found irritatingly spotted with anachronisms. But Mr Kirn's review has a lot of interesting things to say about war, and I hope that it will appear in a collection of the writer's non-fiction.

Of the other fiction covered, only two novels seemed to be of any interest, and then not much. These are 26a, by Diana Evans: about the unraveling of intimacy between the twin daughters of a mixed marriage (set in London); and Vita, by Melania G Mazzuco (translated by Virginia Jewiss): a contemporary Italian writer utilizes surviving documents to recreate the immigrant experiences of young siblings in the New York of a century ago; evidently, at least one of their descendants returned to the South of Italy. Sven Birkerts observes,

In truth, fiction and nonfiction belong to separate spheres: we process them differently, projecting via fancy with the one, weighing and judging with the other. Taken together, they can cerate problems. Late in the novel, for example, against all storytelling wisdom, Mazzucco tells us how things finally worked out for Vita and Diamante, in a storke robbing the final chapters of all natural suspense. Here her two engines are one too many.

I so completely disagree with Mr Birkerts's "separate spheres" doctrine that I'm tempted to read Vita just to see if those last chapters are made disappointing by prior revelations. Alas, where would I find the time to conduct such an experiment?

The big book on the non-fiction side is Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work, which reviewer Michael Gorra pronouces "the best contemporary introduction" to its subject. There are also two new additions to the Library of America, both collections of the work of James Agee. (Film Writing and Selected Journalism and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction - both edited by Michael Sragow.) I am tempted to buy the first volume, because Agee is often held out as the first important film critic; but I suspect, on the basis of remarks about Preston Sturges and Jean Arthur quoted in the review, that I would find the author to be unsympathetic. John Leonard uses the review as an occasion for sketching Agee's reckless life, and I once again registered that Agee's careless excessiveness in the booze and nicotine departments may be more interesting than his writing; his example makes an alluring memento mori.

There should have been so much more that he never wrote. He didn't because he couldn't. From blackouts to coronary thrombosis i not one of the 12 steps. He ought to have paid more attention, if not to his worried doctors, then to his own review of The Lost Weekend, which spoke of "the workings of the several minds inside a drinker's brain," "the narcissism and self-deceit which are so indispensable," "the self-loathing and self-pity which are so invariable" and "the sudden annihilating loneliness and fear of God."

There is also Garrison Keillor's review of a biography of the even briefer self-destructive career of country music star Hank Williams, who died, astonishingly, at the age of twenty-nine (Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams, by Paul Hemphill). And Tracy Kidder's memoir of serving as a second lieutenant in Vietnam (My Detachment). Verlyn Klinkenborg almost chastises Mr Kidder for his earnestness.

But there is something else at work here, too. By being tough on his young self, Kidder knows, I think, that no one will laugh too hard at the man he used to be, who would have been wounded most by laughter. And yet if you refract the irony of this memoir a little differently, the result is high comedy. This absurdly earnest young man is guilty of not much more than being young and absurd. From time to time, he imagines a movie camera tracking his motions. If he were a more sympathetic director, the audience would be rolling in the aisles.

If I thought that Mr Klinkenborg and I were on the same wave-length, I would get a copy of My Detachment on the strength of that passage alone.

Also covered are books about the great explorers of Western history (Off the Map: Tales of Endurance and Exploration, by Fergus Fleming), mounting poorism in American schools (The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), the romance of nocturnal Gotham (New York Night: The Mystique and its History, by Mark Caldwell), counting cards and beating the market (Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, by William Poundstone), and Nancy Drew (Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, by Melanie Rehak; yes, Virginia, Carolyn Keene had multiple personalities). Nicholson Baker and his wife, Margaret Brentano, have compiled a selection of graphic art from The World, Joseph Pulitzer's populist newspaper: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898-1911). Reviewer Jonathan Mahler reminds us that rescuing the last remaining complete collection of original issues of The World from dispersal on eBay is one of the sometimes quixotic-seeming projects that Mr Baker has thrown himself into; since the collection was eventually housed at Duke, I wonder what kind of library catalogue they keep there.

Finally, Adam Goodheart wonders if the world that welcomed John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might not have turned a few too many revolutions to take a matching interest in the gratin of Venice and the incineration of the city's recently-reopened opera house, La Fenice ("the phoenix"). To me, the most memorable thing about the earlier book is the statue of the Bird Girl, reproductions of which I see in catalogue after catalogue. In other words, I don't remember a thing, not really - although Mr Goodheart refreshed my memory. John Berendt is an almost hypnotic storyteller, but when you snap out of the spell, the stories lose their interest.

I can't even think about, much less read, Nora Krug's essay, "The Corrections," which is about the sloppy state of book editing today. I'm still trying to gel my recollection of Jonathan Franzen's voice, which I heard in person on Friday night. Ms Krug's subject is of great interest to me, however, and I'll let you what she has to say when I pull myself together.

September 18, 2005

Book Review

It's very important to me to avoid novels that I won't like and works nonfiction from which I won't learn much of interest. I suppose it's important to anybody who's not a professional book critic. From forty-odd years of buying books, I have developed antennae that fairly reliably distinguish the appealing from the annoying. That may sound paradoxical - how can I judge something that I haven't read? But it has been tested. Every so often, somebody gives me a book about which I'd had misgivings, and the misgivings turn out to be right even though I'm hoping that they won't. And every once in a while I fall for an unexpectedly favorable word - which accounts for my having read The DaVinci Code. (I'll never listen to her again.)

The result is that the books that I write about here are books that I've liked. In an effort to avoid the appearance of saintliness, or of boosterism, or of indiscriminateness, therefore, I propose to run through The New York Times Book Review every weekend, and let you know why I'm not going to read most of the books covered. (I'd have written this yesterday, and had it read for you first thing this morning, but owing to "production delays," the paper didn't arrive yesterday morning until well after ten, by which time I was rolling out the vacuum cleaner and choosing a recording of Der Rosenkavalier to accompany Saturday's domestic straightening-up. I will try not to have too much fun dismissing books that, as I know full well, took their authors years of effort to create.

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