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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 07, 2007

Shrieks

The other day, I finished reading Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons, and came away thinking that the Waughs are almost as interesting a dynasty as the Mitfords - although with the Mitfords the magic was confined to a single brilliant generation of sisters. As it happens, Evelyn was a good friend of Diana's right at the beginning of his career; he dedicated his masterpiece, Vile Bodies, to her - having read sheets of it to her during her confinement (in the West End, while she was pregnant; not at Holloway). Later, he got to be good friends with Diana's older sister, Nancy. and their correspondence, which has been published, is great fun to read. So politically incorrect! Worse than Mad Men, even!

My Mitford page is getting to be too lengthy, and undoubtedly the current file will one day be reduced to a menu leading to many others.

Reading Matter>Reading Matter>Shrieks (Pavillon Mitford).

 

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 25, 2007

In the Book Review

This week's cover story reviews a book that is destined to find its way onto my shelves (which one is a mystery): The Book that George Built, Wilfred Sheed's "big rich stew of an homage that makes you want to listen to Gershwin and Berlin and Porter and Arlen all over again." And how nice to have a "George" in the title that doesn't refer to you-know who.

The other book that I'd like to read, sort of, is Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner's withering history of the CIA. Only sort of, though, because I'm not sure that I really want to know just how incompetent the Agency is.

There are three Noes this week. Two are bad books, and two are political autobiographies, but they're not necessarily the same two. I never thought I'd be putting a review by BHL at the bottom of my report, but then I'm not sure that what he has written is actually a book review.

Here to Stay.

July 20, 2007

Kevin Baker on Rudolph Giuliani, in Harper's

Kevin Baker's warning, in the current Harper's, about the unsuitability of Rudy Giuliani for the White House, ends with a fairly gratuitous basing of the current administration. That is, it's unnecessary to Mr Baker's essay. At the same time, however, it constitutes a magnificent if brief catalogue raisonné of Bush's crimes against civilization, charged with a stark power that, unimaginably, surpasses everything that one has already read and thought.

The worst excesses of the bush regime have stemmed directly from its leader's character - that is, its rampant cronyism; its arrogance and egotism; its peremptory, bullying tone and methods; its refusal to brook criticism from within or without; its frighteningly authoritarian impulses; its need to create enemies as a means of governing; its impulsiveness and naïveté; its outright contempt for the law; and its truly staggering ability to substitute its own versions of what it wishes the world to be for any recognition of objective reality.

Kevin Baker on Rudolph Giuliani, in Harper's.

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 17, 2007

Edinburgh

Last night, I finished reading Alexander Chee's fine first novel, Edinburgh. Then I wrote to the author, who happens to be at the MacDowell colony at the moment. I had first come across his work in From Boys to Men. But it was someone's recently mentioning him at a blog that prompted me to order his book from Amazon. Who could that someone be? It didn't take long to identify the evilganome - although I can't for the life of me locate the particular entry.

Edinburgh starts off brightly, with a successful singing audition, and it holds this tone ever more tightly as the story very shortly takes a turn for the horrific. The writing is lyrical but firmly controlled. Attention is required: the terrible things are only mentioned once, in a flash, and if you're not careful you might skim over them.

Mr Chee has a new book, Queen of the Night, coming out soon*, and I am going to wait for it before writing up Edinburgh, which I may re-read after Queen. I do, however, want to share this magnificent paragraph.

Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it's the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it's what adults have when they forget what it's like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can't remember what that feels like. 

I recommend this book very highly.

* Autumn 2008.

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 09, 2007

Edward Luce on India

When it comes to books about current affairs, I bore very easily. I'm willing to put in a lot of thought, but I don't want to be raked over padded-out lists of problèmes du jour. Happily, there is no risk of tedium in Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Written by an Oxford-educated reporter at the Financial Time, In Spite of the Gods crackles with wit and understanding. Mr Luce dispenses a boatload of information in a digestible drip, and his chapters are studded with portraits of interesting and notable Indians alike. Perhaps because he's English, Mr Luce writes as though everyone has already had enough of the British Raj, and there is very little about it. For someone my age, who grew up during India's first decade of independence, this account of the ever-more-powerful India makes sense of the great changes that have occurred in India's economic climate since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.

If I recall correctly, Mr Luce does not once use the term "Subcontinent." I wonder what that's about.

Edward Luce on India.

July 06, 2007

Testicular Fortitude

Herewith I tip my hat to Édouard, at Sale Bête, for alerting me to the referenced phrase, which appears at John Rogers's blog, Kung Fu Monkey. Follow the link below to read the entire passage.

Do we on the left have the testicular fortitude to recognize the moment when fruitful stability becomes fatal sclerosis? I ask myself that question every day. So far, dreamlike as it is to say so, we live in fruitful stability. That is not an illusion. But as injustice and irresponsibility mount up, stability petrifies. How do we properly fear the corruption of the Republic when fear itself is so powerfully confusing?

¶ Cole, Powers, and Menand on political irresponsibility and illiteracy, in The New Yorker Review of Books and The New Yorker.

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.

July 02, 2007

Sanctuary

Edith Wharton's Sanctuary was first published in 1903. As a novella, it seems to have been out of print for some time, which is reason to celebrate the Hesperus Press's republication last year. The Hesperus Press is a London imprint that specializes in short books, of which there aren't nearly enough. This edition is easy to carry - it will fit in a capacious pocket - and when it has been read, it all but shouts, "Pass me on!"

Having recently finished Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton, I was mad to read something by Wharton, but I couldn't undertake The Custom of the Country, which is what I'd most like to reread. Sanctuary to the rescue!

Sanctuary.

 

July 01, 2007

Reading

Not much to report... A quiet Sunday spent reading. Reading the Times. Today's Times. Yesterday's Times. The Times from Friday and Saturday of the first weekend in June. The Saturday Times for the weekend before that. It took a few hours. I also read the Book Review. When I was done with the orgy of journalism, I finished The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Andrew Keen's book is the sort of thing that I usually avoid, but as an Internaut with some pretensions to substance, I thought I'd better have a look.

I'll write more about this book later, but right now I'd like to say a word about the reading experience. On Friday, when I read about half of it, it seemed a prolonged rant with one or two ideas. I was satisfied that I could answer Mr Keen's objections to the Blogosphere, for example. But the second half of the book, which I read this afternoon, while somewhat overwrought, pointed to a lot of Internet issues that really need to be addressed. Such as piracy and illegal online gambling. The Cult of the Amateur is best regarded as an early warning, a canary in the mineshaft, a word to the wise. In order to make a splash, I suppose it has to be a bit overdone.

(I could tell that Mr Keen is British almost without opening the book. I was sure of it long before he revealed his interest in the football team Tottenham Hotspurs.)

Then back to one of the big thick books that have haunted the base of my bedside-books pile, Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World. Remember when I was reading this in April? I've reached the beginning of the sixth and final part of the book, with about a hundred pages to go. This book is full of dash and brio, and not unacquainted with snark. I may have to re-read Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian when I'm through. And watch Gladiator again. Here I'd thought that when Comodus popped up on the arena of the Colosseum, the filmmakers had plunged into anachronism, not to mention lèse majesté. But what do you know? They hadn't. Mr Lane Fox reports a ghastly event in which the Emperor beheaded two ostriches and then brandished the one of the heads alongside his sword - a hint to the Senate, it's suggested. Writing on the transformation of the Repuglic into the Empire that Augustus pulled off, Mr Lane Fox confirms A N Wilson's immortal judgment, that Augustus was the Widmerpool of Ancient Rome.

(Oh, pooh. I just got round to checking prices on the DVD of the British TV adaptation of Powell's magnum opus. It's out of print! "Used and new" copies start at seventy-five pounds! So much for that. I have the tape of a tape of the original VHS. It's sort of watchable.)

Having delighted in Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, I want to read Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra. It's another fat book at the base of a pile.

On Friday, Kathleen brought home a treat. I had to close my eyes &c. A book was placed in my hands - a book with a note. I knew what the note said as soon as I saw the dust jacket. It apologized for having taken so long to get an inscribed copy of Jane Smiley's Ten Days in Hills to Kathleen, who has worked with a woman who turns out to an old pal of novelist's in California. I already have an autographed copy, one that I got when I showed up for a reading in Chelsea. The thing is, I never ask for personal inscriptions. I've been told by people who know that inscribed books are less valuable than autographed ones except in the rare case where the inscribee (that would be me) is more or less as well known as the inscriber. And while I don't collect books with a view to financial gain, I expect that someone down the road will be happier to have a signed book than one that addresses an unknown blogger. However, Jane Smiley is one of the handful of writers whom I revere as people, and "To R J - All the best," with a date about a week later than my (undated) autographed copy, has taken its place on the shelf.

Now all I have to do is get famous.

June 29, 2007

Sex Appeal Sarah

Just did a Google search for "Dzegs abbidle Dzeedldra." No returns. Thought I ought to amend that.

Not that I mean to be mysterious. It's Boudledidge for "Sex Appeal Sarah," a music-hall song from between the wars (or maybe earlier). Diana Mitford used to invite her much younger sister to interpret the song, with the juvenile lasciviousness of which only the English upper classes are capable, in front of (doubtless shocked) boyfriends. Boudledidge, in case you need reminding, was the "secret" language spoken by Unity and Jessica Mitford - and, just possibly, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (Debo to you). How I omitted this gem from my writeup of Hons and Rebels is beyond me.

It's proof of the lamentable decline in English letters that "Dzegs abbidle Dzeedldra" does not show up at Google. Until now!

Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker

The New Yorker is stuffed with good stuff this week. There's an article about the folly - well, that's what I think it is - of fMRI-based lie detection. There's a neat piece on hedge-fund simulation at bargain prices that I didn't quite catch the first time around. Joan Acocella writes brilliantly about the Waughs. But the indispensable piece is Ken Auletta's "Promises, Promises," an fair-minded report of Rupert Murdoch's courtship of The Dow Jones Company. For a link to the story and my two-cents' worth of Friday Front, click below.

¶ Ken Auletta on the Murdochs and the Bancrofts, in The New Yorker.

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 25, 2007

God Is Not Great

A funny cartoon has already appeared in The New Yorker. Man walks into his apartment with a bolt of lightning stuck in his back. Wife reminds him that she warned him against reading "the Hitchens book." The joke, of course, is that the man is still walking. He may have to see a specialist about removing the lightning bolt, and he may even experience some pain. As a killer, however, the lightning bolt is a dud. What the cartoon captures perfectly is the idea that it's not nice to be disrespectful about religion.

Christopher Hitchens is not nice.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

June 22, 2007

Courage

Courage has never been a virtue that I thought I possessed, much to my chagrin. But maybe I'm a little more courageous than I thought. Earl Shorris is certainly right in this: being courageous improves all the other virtues that you might have.

Sometimes, yes, I've learned, it's important just to soldier on even through the worst anxieties. "Anxieties." Did anyone with real courage ever use that word?

Earl Shorris on The National Character, in Harper's.

June 18, 2007

Falling Man

As a New Yorker keeping a Web log not without literary pretensions, I felt more or less obligated to read Falling Man, even though I couldn't stand the one other book by Don DeLillo that I've read, Underworld. Let's just say that this extremely lengthy and, to put it generously, comprehensive novel did not spend a lot of time in my library once I'd done with it. It does give a frisson of sorts to recall the dust jacket: the Twin Towers seen through the bell tower of a small church - a bell tower rather like the one that was destroyed by the collapsing buildings, although belonging to a church rather farther away.

Years ago, I picked up a remaindered clothbound copy of White Noise, and I've always meant to read it. Falling Man is, in any case, the very opposite of Underworld in the length department. It reads like a full novel but it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's engrossing rather than taxing.

Don DeLillo's Falling Man.

June 15, 2007

Svaraj

This week, I've been under the weather most of the time. The good thing is that I've done a lot of reading. I've polished off Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. (I don't know quite how I think about it, or rather about its inevitable awesomeness.) Lots of periodicals, too, of which the article that I've written up for Portico (see link below) struck me as the most interesting. I wonder what Martha Nussbaum's book is like - a philosopher writing about political economy! Pankaj Mishra, however, is unfailing absorbing.

Pankaj Mishra on Martha C Nussbaum, in The New York Review of Books.

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 11, 2007

Books on Monday: The Queen of the Tambourine

The other day, I was getting ready to pay for a book at Crawford Doyle Booksellers, on Madison Avenue near the Museum, when I saw a copy of Jane Gardam's Old Filth on the counter. "Now that's a terrific novel," I said. The bookseller shot back that the store had some new/old titles in stock. Old Filth may be Ms Gardam's most recent novel, but she's already written about a dozen, none of them available in the United States until recently. Why on earth this should be so is a great mystery, given that Old Filth has sold very well (I'm told) on the Upper East Side. The book's crisp British humor and sly penetration into well-concealed irregularities give Ms Gardam's work something of the iffy thrill of Ruth Rendell's. But her characters (on the basis of two books) are all sane, well-brought-up types whose delusions are not dangerous.

I added The Queen of the Tambourine to my pile. Give yourself a treat and do likewise.

The Queen of the Tambourine.

June 10, 2007

Approaching Wharton

EdithWharton.jpg

The end is in sight. I've reached the antepenultimate chapter of Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton. The books is nothing less than formidable, for the simple reason that its subject was one of the most formidable women ever to achieve fame. Shy and generally wretched as a girl (at least when she wasn't reading or "making up"), Edith Jones grew up to be an almost furiously organized great lady, with houses and gardens and a motor, who also wrote first-class fiction. There are times when you almost feel that she took herself too seriously. But then you see that what she took seriously was enjoying a meaningful life. She was very impatient with with anything that got in her way, and she had nothing but contempt for inferior amusements. Although she was a genuine Lady Bountiful to the needy and the distressed, her snobbery rose like Brünnhilde's fire as the position of those she dealt with approached her own. But she had no use for "society." She seems never to have made a connection based purely on title or celebrity. In a way, she carried herself as though she herself were at the apex of Creation, and there's something fine as well as grand about her manner.

And exhausting. How did she do it all? Of course she had servants who relieved her of everyday petty cares. (That's why she was so organized: once she had set something up, she didn't want to have to think about it.) But her literary output alone would have been entirely beyond, say, me. Her gardens benefited from sedulous attention, (You can see her gardens outside of Paris on Google Maps, by searching for Rue Édith Wharton, St Brice-sous-le-forêt, France; they stretch over five or six acres to the south of the road.) She was always entertaining one or another of her small band of select friends, most but not all of them accomplished men.

And then there was love. What would Wharton have been like if she'd known requited love early and long? She fell into rather insufficiently requited love late, and for not quite two years, with a somewhat dodgy and emotionally passive-aggressive man. When it was over, she was in her late forties, and losing her handsome but not beautiful looks to age. The rest of her 75 years were spent making do with friendships. And a very full schedule.

In 1919, when a Yale University professor called the novels of Wharton and Henry James "aristocratic" rather than (suitably American) "democratic." Wharton was very annoyed, and wrote to a friend,

How much longer are we going to think it necessary to be 'American' before (or in contradistinction to) being cultivated, being enlightened, being humane, and having the same intellectual discipline as other civilized countries? 'Our' shortcomings should not be dressed up as 'a form of patriotism'.

As I consider the thousands of highly educated Americans who will soon be gathering before their flat screens to watch the conclusion of a soap opera that they've persuaded themselves is worthwhile entertainment, I feel how little has changed since Wharton's day.

I've become quite fond of the dust jacket photograph, which I'd never seen before, even though it inspired the drawing on the cover of R W B Lewis's 1975 biography.

June 08, 2007

James Fallows on Chinese Manufacturing

For decades, James Fallows has been providing readers of The Atlantic with outstanding journalism on two fronts: business and cultural reportage from Asia, and personal computing. This month's cover story is his. Interestingly, the title on the cover is not the title in the magazine, and I somehow doubt that Mr Fallows is entirely happy with it. Written in the contrarian vein so popular at The Atlantic, it reads, "Why China's Rise Is Good For Us." Mr Fallows talks about growth in manufacturing capabilities, not a "rise" in the world-power sense. And he is careful to note that, while the current situation may be working for both China and the United States at the moment, there are aspects of it (such as our dependence on Chinese investment in our debt) that can't go on. Mr Fallows's more sensible title is "China Makes, the World Takes."

As always, Mr Fallows's piece is stuffed with interesting information. Did you know that there are (probably - it's difficult to count) more manufacturing jobs in Guangzhou Province alone than there are in the United States? (Guangzhou is the populous heartland of "Cantonese" culture.) Did you know that the laptop assembly lines make heavy use of barcodes and sensitive scales, to make sure that the proper part has been installed at each step of production? Did you know that workers live in subsidized dormitories and eat at subsidized cafeterias, something that allows them to bank a great deal more of their earnings than American workers can? Read the article.

James Fallows on Chinese Manufacturing, in The Atlantic.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

May 28, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Most of the first chapter of Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach - it will come out in the US in June - was published in The New Yorker last year. The story of a newlywed couple headed straight for sexual disaster was as horrifying to read as The Silence of the Lambs. You wonder what on earth can happen next. A beautiful novel is what happens next. It is Mr McEwan's most moving novel so far. Until now, I've always had a hard time picking one McEwan title to recommend to readers unfamiliar with his work. No longer: On Chesil Beach is the place to begin.

In the accompanying essay (see link below), I have refrained from looking past the first chapter, because I wouldn't want to spoil the story. Someday, when I decide that everyone has read it who is going to read it (if you know what I mean by that absurdity), and the novel has acquired a settled reputation, I will explore the fifth and final chapter, which is thrilling rather than horrifying, and then quite elegaic.

For those of you who like audiobooks, Mr McEwan has recorded his text unabridged. I may just have to hear it.

On Chesil Beach.

May 25, 2007

Elizabeth Kolbert on Silent Spring, in The New Yorker

One fine day in June, 1962, I screwed myself up to my full height (6'4½" at that time) and bought a copy of The New Yorker. I was fourteen, but carrying The New Yorker around convinced me that I could just skip the rest of adolescence. Which turned out to be not so hot an idea. But with a few occasional lapses, I would be a regular reader of the magazine for the next forty-five years (next month).

I bought the issue for June 16, 1962. I know this because The Complete New Yorker tells me so. I remember the cover - a bevy of brides drawn by an illustrator who would become very dear to me (as a reader), Abe Birnbaum. The Complete New Yorker also confirms my recollection that the first installment of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring ran that week. I did not read all three installments all the way through - I had nothing like the stamina necessary to swallow such adult fare. And I wasn't all that into nature or corporate shenanigans. I was into the idea of founding my own version of The New Yorker, which I would call The Quill, and not facetiously, either: I was trying to learn to write with quill pens at the time. You do things like that when you decide that you can skip adolescence. And quill pens are certainly better for the environment.

Elizabeth Kolbert on Silent Spring, in The New Yorker.

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 21, 2007

Self-Made Man

Not too long ago, I bought a copy of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, because I thought that Kathleen ought to know how ordinary men behave when there aren't any women around. I ended up reading the book first, and in one captivated day (I did nothing else). I expected a book about the adventures of passing as a man, but that's not what Ms Vincent wrote. As she herself says, passing was the easy part. The hard part was learning how tough life is for most guys. The alleged power and privilege of belonging to the dominant gender seems to be nothing more than smoke; in actuality, men are crippled by stoic homophobia on the one hand and the unrealistic expectations of women on the other. Ms Vincent was very surprised to find where her sympathies lay, and, when she recovered from the experiment, she was very happy to be a woman.

Self-Made Man.

May 18, 2007

Michael Tomasky on the Hope for Political Discourse, in The New York Review of Books

Until yesterday afternoon, I was going to write about Peter Hessler's immensely intriguing article about "The Great Wall of China," which, it should come as no surprise to anyone by now, is a Western construct. There is no "Great Wall." There are walls, here and there, but they are not continuous. What most people think of as "The Great Wall" is properly known as "The Ming Wall," because it was built by that late-medieval dynasty to protect Beijing, where the Ming emperors were installed in the Forbidden City (the Ming carried Chinese xenophobia to new and startling heights).

There is no body of academic scholars anywhere devoted to studying the Ming Wall. It has been left to amateurs, the most eminent of which - unbeknownst to many of the Chinese who also study the wall - is an American, David Spindler. Spindler, in the mid-Nineties was awarded a Master's Degree from Beijing University for his work on an ancient Chinese philosopher, Dong Zhongshu; after that, he went through Harvard Law and then worked for McKinsey & Company in Beijing. Now he just walks the wall. Quixotists will want to know about him. (Mr Hessler's piece is not on-line.)

Then, however, I read Michael Tomasky's piece in the current New York Review.

Michael Tomasky on the Hope for Political Discourse, in The New York Review of Books.

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 14, 2007

The Last Mrs Astor

MrsAstor.jpg

Here is a dust jacket that seduced me. I didn't give in without a slight tussle. After all, The Last Mrs Astor might turn out to be what Kathleen and I call a "hairdresser" book, all tease and supposition. The photograph of the new Mrs Astor, which turns out to have been taken by Cecil Beaton, no less, suggested that the project was authorized at some point. My doubts were resolved when I noted that the author, Frances Kiernan, wrote a book about Mary McCarthy. But not, as I erroneously concluded, the one that I've read, Carol Brightman's Writing Dangerously. In the end, I had issues, but the issues had issues, which made for an interesting read.

I found myself wondering what, in her prime, Mrs Astor sounded like.

The Last Mrs Astor.

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 07, 2007

Books on Monday: Zip

Perhaps because I'm convalescing from spring fever, I don't have a new book page at Portico to link to. I'm still in the middle of too many books, and the two books that I did finish last week left me with nothing much to say. Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors first appeared forty-three years ago when I was sixteen, and I can only wonder what I would have made of it then. Much of it would have gone right over my head. Set in New Orleans at the beginning of the Civil Rights decade, it It was difficult for me to follow the action. The geography of cheap hotels, a soap factory, a warehouse transformed into a media center, and a "Sports Palace" is rendered with a slightly surreal incompleteness; the narrative is smudged as to time as well. As a result, A Hall of Mirrors very effectively simulates a nightmare, and I had the laborious sense of reading a thriller in a foreign language. Some of it still went right over my head.

I've already re-read the other book, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story, and I still don't quite get it. The book is billed as an "elegant fable" by the publisher, and it is that. A man who might or might not be dead turns out to be - dead. Having gone to sleep in Amsterdam (and apparently died there), he wakes up in Lisbon, which is, it gradually emerges, the point of departure for the Underworld, which lies up the Amazon. I overstate, perhaps. This is the sort of fiction that makes me feel stupid, because I don't get it, and when someone explains it to me, I can only respond with a thick-witted "And?" There are modes of existence that my mind cannot, or will not, encompass.

Edith Wharton is far more agreeable, but I've only begun it. Herrnione Lee acutely underlines all the points of decorous if provincial punctilio that Edith Jones learned as a girl and never set aside. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, for example, she did not so much as mention two women who were very friendly to her as a girl. Why? Because she respected their privacy. As women of private life, they were entitled to be known only to their acquaintance. This is beyond tact. Wharton developed a robust public persona very quickly as she became a successful writer (and not just a novelist), in her forties; she was not about to demolish it with a tell-all memoir.

As for Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, I have reached Part Four at last: "The Roman Republic." This republic is already the principal power in the Mediterranean, having subdued two of the three post-Alexandrian kingdoms, in Macedon and the Levant. as well as Italy and Sicily. Carthage has been thrashed but not destroyed. I have a hard time grasping the distance between the theory and practice of the Roman constitution; an air of polite fiction always seems to hang over pre-imperial arrangements. Then the fiction becomes less polite, but the realities are easier to size up.

What are you reading?

May 04, 2007

Friday Fronts: In the current Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair for June arrived only yesterday, and already it has bowled me over with three characteristically punchy pieces on the tattered state of our political fabric. Cullen Murphy sounds the alarm on privatization, Kipling Buis takes a look at Americans through the eyes of Frances Trollope, and Michael Wolff muses about the improbable candidacy of Rudy Giuliani.

Three American Pieces, in Vanity Fair.

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 30, 2007

"Walking Spanish down the hall"

It's difficult to be brief about Joshua Ferris's superb novel, Then We Came to the End. I never say that I look forward to re-reading a new book unless I mean it, but I'm rarely as sure that I will re-read it as I am in this case. Books this delightful to read don't generally pose sticky moral questions. So light is Mr Ferris's touch that it's possible just to enjoy the ride and shrug off the doubts that it raises about the health of corporate life even at its most creative. I dare you to try!

April 26, 2007

Wow

The news this morning is that I woke up with the sense of having had a very strong and interesting dream, but the dream was actually a novel - Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. I read it yesterday. I had expected the book to be a fun read, and it was, but it was so much more. I'll probably spend the rest of the day trying to squeeze out a few semi-literate paragraphs for Monday. For the moment, all I can say is: The Great Gatsby. Mr Ferris's novel is that good. Or so it seems, the morning after.

April 25, 2007

What Winthrop Sargeant Actually Said

For years, I've been carrying around in my head something that Winthrop Sargeant, late music critic at The New Yorker, wrote about Emmanuel Chabrier's Souvenirs de Munich. As I remembered it, he called it "the funniest piece of music." In fact, Sargeant put it (18 March 1972) rather more concisely.

Now, this bit, which is made up largely of quotations from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, given a music-hall touch by Chabrier, is one of the most hilarious musical satires ever written.

Every week, it seems, I am driven to consult The Complete New Yorker in order to clarify some dim recollection or revisit some once-important story. After all, I've been reading The New Yorker for nearly forty-five years. My brain has turned most of what I've read into a dense fog that now, at last, can here and there be cleared. I'm still surprised, well over a year and a half after the DVDs appeared, that it's possible to search the magazine's archives at home and without any special machinery. (Once, in college, I was moved to see what kind of coverage the Abdication of Edward VIII got, and for years I kept a printout of Janet Flanner's Letter from London on the subject. I do believe that this was the only time that I had anything to do with microfilm.) I used to keep boxes of clippings, although it was pointless to do so, because the morass of stapled pages was practically unsearchable. From time to time I'd throw everything out.

I still rip off and save the magazine's covers before chuting the rest. You can't print covers from The Complete New Yorker, no sir.

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 23, 2007

The Pile: an Update

Here's how my reading is going these days.

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox. It didn't take long for me to realize that I haven't read an overview of classical antiquity since the sixth grade. I'm familiar with almost everything that Mr Fox writes about, but not in anything like this extensive context.

There are two ways to approach a book of this kind: read it all at once, to the exclusion of all others, or peck away at it deliberately by reading a chapter a day. I'm trying the latter. The book is divided into six parts, three for the Greeks (Archaic, Classical, Alexandrian) and three for the Romans (Republic, transition, Empire). I've reached the third of ten chapters about the Hellenistic world.

A Hall of Mirrors, by Robert Stone. This is Mr Stone's first novel, published in 1964. It is not an appealing book. It's about the gritty lives of Rheinhardt, a gifted but sodden DJ, and Geraldine, a sweet girl with a slashed face. It is set in a New Orleans that no tourist has ever visited. Most of the time, A Hall of Mirrors seems to take place in another century, but there are moments of immediacy.

The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall. What prompted me to buy this book? It's the sort of thing that I wouldn't order from Amazon in a million years; there had to be a stack of books on a bookseller's table, calling out to me, "Hey, handsome, read me and you'll be cool."  I am such a sucker! This is why I avoid bookstores.

Two impressions - suspicions, really - one much worse than the other: the title sounds a lot like the way an Englishman might say "Rorschach Test"; and, having reached the midpoint, I'm horrified to think that what I'm reading is just a high-concept version of The Da Vinci Code. Noooo! Do I put the book down now or see it through?

Peasants and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett). I'm reading these stories because James Wood, in his essay on Virginia Woolf (in The Broken Estate, which I've pulled down from the shelf), claims that Woolf's writing changed after she read them, in 1916 or so. The book is a NYRB reprint of a Doubleday Anchor edition of 1956, introduced by Edmund Wilson.

Books on which I have made no progress lately include The Label, Gary Marmorstein's book about Columbia Records, and The Ambassadors' Secret, by John North. Books that I have not begun to read include Voltaire's Mahomet le prophète, Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton, and Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End. I'm dying to read the last.

April 20, 2007

On the importance of literary criticsm

The news this week has been, to say the least, demoralizing. Everything that I know about the Virginia Tech massacre I know from the Times and from the few Web logs that I've read that have mentioned it. There is really nothing to say that hasn't been said in response to other recent American disasters.

It was fun, sort of, to read the excoriating editorial about the Attorney General, "Gonzalez v Gonzalez," in today's paper. But then it stopped being fun. That such a doofus could rise to a position of eminence is proof that our political culture is both corrupt and demented.

So pardon me while I take refuge in my ivory tower.

¶ Cynthia Ozick on critics; Siddhartha Debs on Roberto Bolaño, in Harper's.

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 16, 2007

Turgenev

I have thought of myself for years as someone who would read Turgenev with pleasure  - without actually reading any Turgenev. When I was a student, it seemed more important to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Turgenev's country-house comedies, highlighting the fecklessness of high-minded landowners, seemed a little depressing in substance. But two weeks ago, I was reading a piece in The New York Review of Books - a review of a new life, I believe - when a wave of shame deluged me. Virgin Soil was the first book that I could get my hands on.

Virgin Soil.

April 11, 2007

Fry & Laurie on "Language"

Don't miss this.

Does anybody know whom Stephen Fry is lampooning?

They're so young. The clip must be over twenty years old. (Thanks to JJB at New Yorker Comment.)

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 09, 2007

Rivalry

Kathleen and I have been arguing about going to Rome for years. She has wanted to go. I've had other priorities. Rome is so, well, Roman. "Eternal City" my hat. It was a pestilential swamp during most of the Middle Ages, and the presence of the Vatican City, astonishing as the great basilica of St Peter's might be, is hardly endearing.

Jake Morrissey's book about the rivalry between and respective careers of Franceso Borromini and Gianlorenzo Bernini changed my mind. I've got to go.

The Genius in the Design: Bernini, Borromini, and the Rivalry That Transformed Rome.

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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April 02, 2007

The Unbinding

Walter Kirn's Internet novel, The Unbinding, has been published in book form. The links in the original version, which appeared at Slate, have been replaced by boldfaced type that, books being books, just sits there. The links are listed at a dedicated Web site. They are not gratuitous decorations. They must be followed for a full understanding of the book, but the story is comprehensible without the light that they shed. It is all somewhat more "interesting" than interesting.

The Unbinding.

March 29, 2007

Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone

What I'm reading these days is Virgin Soil, Ivan Turgenev's last novel, and A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone's first. They are very unalike. Turgenev's social comedy - which, I expect, is not going to be so funny by the end - is dry and understated, prone to refrain from judgment while making it impossible for the reader to do the same. His characters are offspring, legitimate or otherwise, of the upper classes; some are richer than others but all would pass, in the England of the time, as gentlefolk.

A Hall of Miirrors takes place in a New Orleans that is unlikely to inspire nostalgia. For the down-and-out characters whose alternate stories twine through the opening of the book, New Orleans is anything but the Big Easy. It's a gritty, unwelcoming burg at the end of the Illinois Central tracks. Rheinhardt, now a drunk, was at one time a promising clarinetist at Juilliard. Geraldine's face is nastily scarred - car accident, she says. She'd like to get a job as a waitress, but prospective employers have another line of work in mind.

Somewhere in Virgin Soil - I haven't come upon it yet - a character gives the aristocracy another thirty years. In the event, they had forty, which is close enough. Everybody in the book seems to believe that some sort of fundamental change is inevitable; something like a revolution lies ahead. In A Hall of Mirrors, the revolution has already taken place. The air giddy expectation that colors Virgin Soil are replaced by the shut-down self-protectiveness of A Hall of Mirrors.

Continue reading "Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone" »

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 26, 2007

Television

Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision has been in my pile for an unconscionably long time. It wasn't until I bought Jonathan Stump's English translation that I made real headway, but I did read the novel in French. 

(From the Department of You Learn Something Every Day, there's this, said of a sandwich purchased outside a museum: Je n'avais pas fait une affaire." Come again? "It was no bargain.")

In either language, Television is a great read and, because it makes you feel about television instead of just asking you think about it, it's an important book.

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 19, 2007

Books on Monday: Whoopy Rupi

Isn't Rupert Everett a little young to be issuing an autobiography? Not so much, as you'll discover if you read it, and I strongly advise that you do.

Do you have a favorite Rupi movie?

March 16, 2007

Critical Education: Andrew Delbanco in The New York Review of Books

What exactly is critical thinking? There's a Wikipedia entry that suggests an approach to understanding the matter, but it's written at a fairly high level of abstraction. What it boils down to in my view is a corrective for the natural virtuosity at self-justification that accompanies average-to-superior intelligence. Most of "what stands to reason" generally doesn't, for the simple reason that reason hasn't been applied.

In The New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco reviews six books about the "Scandals of Higher Education." Which is worse, madly skewed admissions policy or the failure to educate the lucky ones who get in?

This week's Friday Front.

March 15, 2007

Francophonie

Our moment of spring here in New York is coming to an end as I write, with temperatures dropping and rain predicted to turn into snow. Happily, there's the extra daylight.

When I stopped in at McNally Robinson last Friday, to buy novels by Turgenev on a whim, I picked up a schedule of the bookshop's coming events. My heart sank when I saw that they'd be presenting their first francophone event ever on Tuesday (two nights ago), an evening for which I had grand tickets to hear the Russian National Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall. Even though I didn't know the first thing about any of the Quebecois writers who would be reading from their work, I thought I really ought to go, and so did Kathleen and Fossil Darling and Ms NOLA.* Getting rid of the tickets was a pain; I ended up handing them over to a young German couple on the 6 train. I hope that they realized that, if they were going to use them - the woman seemed very eager, the man not so much - they'd have to find a train heading in the opposite direction.

McNally Robinson was fairly overflowing with people interested in participating in a francophone event.** I would find out afterwards that lots of those one hand were francophone only to the degree that I am - very roughly, in other words. I will write about the readers and their books as I get to them - the books, that is. For the moment, I can say that I'd had a lubricating Manhattan before heading downtown, and my comparable disinhibition meant that I jumped right in speaking French, however badly. I also joined in a conversation that several guests were having with the extremely affable Quebecois cultural attaché, M Jean-Pierre Dion.

Did the evening mark a change in my life? Since Ms NOLA began supplying me, about two years ago, with interesting dates around town, I've been to more book events, mostly by myself, than in all the prior years of my existence. But this time, I gave up a very good concert in order to do so. I was very torn about the decision, and still regret not hearing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto the Prokofiev Fifth - not to mention my favorite Stravinsky, the Scherzo Fantasque. Next to that familiar, beloved music, the reading at McNally Robinson was new and different, and far more demanding. But that's just it. It didn't have to be more demanding. I could have just sat there. But I was determined to interact. This determination to interact isn't exactly new anymore. But it didn't trump a concert until Tuesday.

* NB: Had Kathleen been able to go to the concert - and we knew by the weekend that she wouldn't be - the dilemma would never have arisen.

** All three books were promoted in English translation; only one was also available in the original.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

March 12, 2007

Valentines

Olaf Olafsson's Valentines (Knopf, 2007) is a collection of twelve short stories, one for each month of the year, in which men screw up their relationships big time but with a breathtaking minimum of fuss. The stories aren't linked in any narrative way, but as variations on a theme they develop force. "April" is one of the few perfect short stories that I've ever read: the inexorability that glimmers in the opening paragraphs takes over with the force of a gale, sweeping the protagonist into a failure that can never be made right. I read it haltingly, as if putting my hands over my eyes during a particularly painful movie.

For maximum effect, read one story a day for twelve days.

March 11, 2007

"More Books Than Sense"

BookPiles.JPG

There have never been so many unread books in the house. I blame it on Ms NOLA - she keeps me au courant. Not to mention the Blogosphere. Here you see three stacks of books, and, believe me, there's more where they came from. The books on the bedside table are the books that I am reading right now. The books reflected in the mirror are the books that I am going to read when I've finished with the books on my bedside table. It is understood that books bought between now and then may give this second pile a certain fly-in-amber quality. As for the Tower of Babel in front of the mirror, I can only say that it makes me feel as futile as a Soviet bureaucrat. There's no knowing when some burst of buzz will pull one of those books from the ziggurat, but that's probably what it's going to take for them - a burst of buzz.

I'm currently reading a serial-murder thriller, set toward the end of the reign of Henry II (the Becket/Lion in Winter king)  in Cambridge - there was no University at the time - that was sent to me by the good people at G P Putnam's Sons. It's called Mistress of the Art of Death, and it's by Ariana Franklin. The hero - "heroine" would be altogether wrong - is a female physician from Salerno who's even less insecure than Clarice Starling, but just as appealing. I call Mistress a "time-machine" thriller, because while the material historical details are correct, the characters talk in a way that you would find interesting. You may be sure that nobody in the late Twelfth Century actually did. I'm also reading Walter Kirn's The Unbinding. The mix is just right.

March 09, 2007

Surging Democrats

No sooner do I write up two articles in the current issue of The New York Review of Books than I collect the mail and find the actual current issue there. I guess I'm running behind. Did I rewrite the beginning of my Friday Front? I did not. Like the President, I stay the course, decline to rectify mistakes.

Michael Tomasky tells us why Charles Schumer is the senator to watch, possibly the center of a new Democratic leadership. Peter W Galbraith shows that Lt Gen David Petraeus's record in Iraq, where he has already serve two tours, augurs anything but success for the Surge.

March 07, 2007

In the Book Review

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

As everybody knows, The New York Times operates two completely independent book-review operations. There are the Books of the Times, reviewed in every day's Arts Section. Then there's the Book Review. Really big books often get dual, conflicting coverage. When I say that a book doesn't belong in the Book Review, I don't mean that it's unworthy of critical attention. Sure, I put sports books in among the Noes as a matter of course, and yes, it's true that I have no interest in sports. But the Book Review ought to be a home for the humanities: literature, history, political thought (not theory!), and serious consideration of the pleasures of life. The Times publishes a daily Sports section. Why not review sports books there? The two Noes in today's Review review would fit comfortably in the Styles section; the latter would be apt next to the chess column. Lots of books, especially political biographies, are genuinely newsworthy; the Book Review ought to aim for the somewhat more timeless.

Ben Schott, the gent who's raking in the simoleons in his career as a miscellanist, notes in his Essay, "Confessions of a Book Abuser,"

It is notable that those who abuse their own books through manhandling or marginalia are often those who love books best.

I myself never write in books. I have a blog!

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

March 05, 2007

Colm Tóibín discusses Mothers and Sons

As promised, a word about the Tóibín reading Saturday night.

Books on Monday: An Amerrican Killing

Having discovered Mary-Ann Tirone Smith late last year, I looked up her other work and got a copy of her fifth novel, An American Killing. I read it in January and really liked it, but I had a pile of books to write up, and being physically the largest of them (if not the thickest), it stayed at the bottom. By the time it emerged, I had to re-read huge chunks of it in order to sound halfway intelligent about it - no sharp stick in the eye! The book's complicated but perfectly worked-out plot has far too many details to be remembered, so even though I knew how the story came out and who the bad guys were, the connections eluded me. I'll read it again sometime, and it will be almost new.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

February 26, 2007

Books on Monday: Ten Days in the Hills

I remain puzzled by the dust jacket that adorns Jane Smiley's new novel, Ten Days in the Hills. It suggests that the book is more focused on watching movies than on making them. And there is no couple that corresponds to the young kissers. (There's no young white woman at all, and the only young woman is in a semi-sibling rivalry with the only young man; she probably would never let him make love to her under any circumstances.) So I continue to look for a solution. I could have asked Ms Smiley about the dust jacket the other night, when, for the second time in my life, I lined up for her to sign a new book. But I make it a policy not to query or quibble with writers at signings.

The reading-and-signing took place at 192 Books, a small but neat bookshop that is very, very far from home. To wit, it's at 192 Tenth Avenue. Tenth Avenue is not really on my map, or wasn't until recently. You can almost see the Hudson River - from street level. The quickest way to get there from here is to change trains at 51st Street, and take the E to 23rd Street. I chose to come and go by the L connection, walking all the way from Eighth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. It wasn't too bitterly cold.

Ms NOLA told me about the event a day or so before, but happily I had the foresight to investigate on line, because reservations are necessary. A gentleman stood at the door and checked names off a list.

I was very sorry about the pathetic size of my acquaintance afterward. I knew only two people who lived anywhere nearby, and they were so unlikely to be free that I didn't bother them. I retraced my steps, and dined alone at the Japanese pub across the street. From home, that is.

Ms Smiley entertained questions (mine was the first taken). Someone wanted to know how fame and fortune had changed her life. Her laconic answer: "I own more horses than I ever thought I would."

Read about Ten Days in the Hills at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

February 19, 2007

Books on Monday: Fire in the City

Anybody with an interest in history will know "who Savonarola was," but what does this mean? Yes, he's the "Bonfire of the Vanities" guy who inspired Florentines to burn their gewgaws at Carnival - an improvement over the regular custom of throwing rocks at people. But thinking about Savonarola means trying to think fifteenth-century thoughts - trying to see the world without our far more reflective and knowingly psychological habits of mind. In his new book, Fire in the City, Lauro Martines does a very good job of teaching us how to do pull this off.

Read about Fire in the City at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

February 12, 2007

Books on Monday: Prime Green

Robert Stone's Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties has made me look back to the most troubled decade that I have lived through. Having recovered from the Depression and World War II, the nation proceeded to fall apart, and it has been falling apart ever since. What folly! To found a New World of Hope and Promise - upon the scripture Hebrew Bible! It could never work, and it hasn't. One day we will grow up and do something about it. For the moment, we seem to be stuck in a jam, between those for whom the Sixties revealed what we might be, and those for whom the Sixties was the end of a cherished order. I wish that I could be as good-humored about the period as Mr Stone is. He has written a dandy memoir, more about the times than about himself, and more than once it brought the very smell of the time back with a rush. 

What I'm reading now: Olaf Olafsson's Valentines - one story a day - and E M Forster's A Room With a View, for the third time. And, perhaps prodded by Prime Green, I'm finally opening up Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975.

Don't miss this hilariously mortifying study of how we civilians look to Tech Support. And be sure to check out some British writers' rooms. Only Beryl Bainbridge's desk doesn't face a wall. I need a room to look out into. (Thanks to Patricia for both!)

Read about Prime Green at Portico.

February 09, 2007

In The New Yorker

We can't know what we don't know; we can just have a good idea of some matters that have got to be cleared up in a way that will add to what we do know. For the earlier millennia of human history, what was known and knowable was set in stone, and philosophers busied themselves with interpreting it. Ever since the Renaissance, however, we have lived with a bang of increased knowledge that bangs louder and more frequently every year, so that now, for most of us, it is just a staticky hum. Most pessimists will tell you that we still haven't learned anything about the real human mysteries, but there's reason to believe that those have only recently begun to be studied in a meaningful way, through neuroscience. Pat and Paul Churchland are philosophers who have devoted their careers to scrutinizing neuroscientific concepts and applying them to life outside the laboratory. Larissa MacFarquhar profiles them in The New Yorker.

I need a drink. My dopamine levels need lifting.

Read about the Churchlands at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

February 05, 2007

Books on Monday: Call Me By Your Name

What with a lot of down-time due to illness, I've read a great deal lately, and the books are piling up at my desk. Rather stupidly, I've written about the last one first, André Aciman's beautiful Call Me By Your Name. I couldn't not. Other books in the pipeline: U.S.!, a genuinely political novel by Chris Bachelder; Ten Days in the Hills, by Jane Smiley; Prime Green, by Robert Stone; Fire in the City, a study of the Savonarolan republic in Florence, by Lauro Martines; and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's An American Killing. Great reads all. But I didn't write them up the moment I was finished, and now I'm in big trouble.

What I'm reading: A Room With A View, one of my favorite Forsters. Les Bienveillants, by Jonathan Littell. The latter is not easy going; I cover about ten pages an hour. (I'm being unusually scrupulous about looking up words that I don't know, and the book's vocabulary is immense.) At dinner, the other night, I learned that Édouard is twice as far into the book as I am, and that got me to spend an hour with it on Saturday afternoon. We agree that Les Bienveillants (The Kindly Ones - due from HarperCollins in a year or two) is a very great book. Everybody will want to read it, and then there will be a shattering movie not directed by Steven Spielberg.

A small warning about my page on Call Me By Your Name: novelist Nicole Reader cautions readers who "like your literature censored" not to read it. She means it as a compliment, and so do I, very much, in the last passage that I quote.

February 02, 2007

In the New York Review of Books

William Pfaff's ought to be a household name in the United States. I believe that he reflects our best traits: pragmatic, clear-eyed, constructively self-interested, and - not a widespread trait, although it is not uncommon - able to understand how we might appear to others. Mr Pfaff does not see what he wants to see; he is not about to tell you what you want to hear. You wouldn't want your doctor or your lawyer to mislead you, however sweetly, and you ought to expect the same leveling from your political analysts.

Read more, or skip directly to Mr Pfaff's essay.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

January 29, 2007

Books on Monday: Forgetfulness

Ward Just is one of my favorite writers, despite everything. "Everything" encapsulates books about laconic, stoic American men. I usually can't bear them. But Mr Just makes them attractive in a way that owes nothing, ultimately, to Hemingway. Founded so dramatically in 1776 and 1789, the Unites States is surprisingly fond of men who don't talk. Ward Just is their modern chronicler.

In The Good Shepherd, there's an amazing line about how everyone but the WASPs are "visitors" in the United States. Mr Just's fiction resonates to that tonality without being at all dismissive. Once upon a time, this was a country in which the spawn of proletarian Protestant professionals could rise to the top, as if on the strength of a Skull and Bones handshake. They knew they were the only people who mattered, and, until women knocked down the gates, all the other guys in the country were happy to let them rule.

Sometimes, being an American is like being a detective, examining a case in which something terribly sordid has taken place in a preacher's bathroom. 

Forgetfulness.

January 26, 2007

In The New Yorker

Interestingly, there are two articles in The New Yorker this week that feed the same thought, a reflection on human nature's preference for stable calm over rule of law. The longer is Michael Specter' indispensable survey of civil freedom in today's Russia; the shorter is a review, by Caleb Crain, of Matthew Warshauer's Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law (Tennessee, 2006).

Last October, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot and killed in her Moscow apartment building. A month later, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, died of polonium poisoning. Both were critics of President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent himself who has decided, it appears, that Russia does not need critics at the present time. In his Letter from Moscow (not available on-line), Mr Specter notes recent adulatory coverage in the the Russian press of Leonid Brezhnev's centenary and Augusto Pinochet's recent death. Both are thought to have made their countries "stable and strong." 

Putin, who has called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century," clearly agrees. Sick of the lines, the empty shops, and the false promises of Soviet life, Russians looked to the West - and particularly to the United States - to provide an economic model. What followed was an epic disaster: the sell-off of the state's most valuable assets made a few dozen people obscenely rich, but the lives of millions of others became far worse. The health-care system fell apart, and so did many of the social-service networks. Russia became the first industrial country ever to experience a sustained fall in life expectancy. Russian males born today can, on average, expect to life to the age of fifty-nine, dying younger than if they were born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. It is not surprising, then, that by the time Putin became President most Russians were only too happy to exchange the metaphysical ideas of free speech and intellectual freedom for the concrete desires of owning a home and a car and possessing a bank account. They also wanted to feel that somebody was in control of their country.

The curious thing is that, according to publisher Alexei Volin and broadcaster Aleksei Venediktov, most Russians don't care about newspapers or TV news. They're even less important in Russia than they are in the United States, where hoi polloi do a magnificent job of keeping themselves ill-informed.

The imposition of martial law in New Orleans on December 16, 1814, on the eve of a Battle of New Orleans that would mean nothing, because the what we call the War of 1812 was officially over before it was fought, was unconstitutional, and Andrew Jackson was fined a thousand dollars for the offense. In 1844, his campaign to have the fine refunded finally met with success. The refund implicitly ratified Jackson's action (without making it any less unconstitutional), and it appears to have been the precedent for Abraham Lincoln's suppression of habeas corpus in 1863. And so on. But the Battle of New Orleans was the making of Andrew Jackson, and he became the first President to exploit his countrymen's love of a bold and robust, if occasionally ruthless, leader. When a big guy can get the job done, Americans will look the other way rather than hold him to account for misdeeds. In "Bad Precedent," Mr Crain writes,

The evidence certainly suggests that it has always been difficult to find a reliable base of support for habeas corpus in America; it's a vulnerable right, especially during emergencies and when a charismatic leader is involved.

Ironically, the only American branch that has the power to suspend habeas corpus - the Congress - has twice supported the expropriation of this power, first by refunding Jackson's fine and then, last year, by ratifying President Bush's suppression of habeas corpus at Guantánamo Bay. Mr Crain quotes F-X Martin, a New Orleans judge who went on to write a history of New Orleans. As an appeals-court judge, he had declined to penalize Jackson for imposing martial law; he argued that he lacked the jurisdiction. Later, in his history, he would write, "In free governments, dangerous precedents are to be dreaded from good and popular characters only."

In The Nation, Columbia historian Eric Foner reviews The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, by James Oakes (Norton, 2007). Mr Foner's review (also not on-line - yet) is favorable, but what caught my eye were the two opening paragraphs, which I think that everyone ought to read closely, because they explode some very widespread myths about the Civil War, and do so quite neatly.

The abolition of slavery in the United States appears in retrospect so inevitable that it is difficult to recall how unlikely it seemed as late as 1860, the year of Abraham Lincoln's election as President. Slaveowners had pretty much controlled the national government since its inception. The 4 million slaves formed by far the country's largest concentration of property (their economic worth exceeded the value of all factories, railroads and banks in the country combined). Racism was deeply entrenched in the North as well as the South. Blacks, free as well as slaves, had few rights anywhere, and abolitionists were a despised minority.

Obviously, Lincoln's election and the civil war it triggered made emancipation possible. But Lincoln campaigned for President pledging to prevent slavery's expansion into the Western territories, while insisting that he had no intention of interfering with the institution where it already existed. It was by no means certain when the war began that it would become a crusade to destroy slavery.

 

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'."

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

January 22, 2007

Books on Monday: Mothers and Sons

At the top of all the smartest reading lists this season is Colm Tóibín's Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories that puts the author in a class with Alice Munro (whose latest book, The View From Castle Rock, is also up there on the lists). As a rule, I give Irish fiction a very wide berth, because so much of it is blighted either by the after-effects of colonial misrule or by the provinciality enforced by the Catholic Church. Mr Tóibín's fiction transcends both limitations without ignoring either. As a very gifted gay man, he gives us an Ireland entirely devoid of Lucky Charms, and he beautifully crumples the impression that I got from driving across Ireland with my father in 1977: "All the smart ones left." Not so. (Although, come to think of it, he did spend an awful lot of time in Barcelona.)

Read about Mothers and Sons at Portico.

January 15, 2007

Books on Monday: Him Her Him Again The End of Him

As earlier noted, I spent Friday moaning in bed and reading Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him, by Patricia Marx. It was good, but I expected it to be better. I was, however, moaning in bed, and perhaps that complicated my reaction. I suppose that the book is, to some extent, chick-lit. That's a horrible thing to say, but the novel is so infused with narcissism, both open and covert, that I have to ask, who but a romance-obsessed young woman could read this book without a certain low-frequency impatience?

Read about  Him  Her  Him Again  The End of Him at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

January 08, 2007

Books on Monday: Girls of Tender Age

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Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir came out early last year, but I didn't hear about it until the middle of December, when a publicist at the Free Press contacted me with the suggestion that the forthcoming paperback edition "would be of interest to you and to the readers of Daily Blague." It was certainly of interest to me. Although there's an awful crime at the center of the book, and a lot of other stuff that it would be difficult to be thankful for, Girls of Tender Age is a very funny book. Ms Smith's affection for her family and for the other people she grew up with beautifully tempers her indignation about some very unjust social contracts. Girls of Tender Age is a book to love.

Read more about Girls of Tender Age at Portico.

January 05, 2007

In Vanity Fair

There are two must-read pieces in the current issue of Vanity Fair. After years of condescending dismissal, I've broken down and subscribed. As a devoted reader of Spy and a longtime (but no longer) subscriber to the New York Observer, I can tell myself that I'm just following editor Graydon Carter's star. As it happens, I'm in the middle of Spy: The Funny Years, by George Kalogerakis, with assists from Mr Carter and co-editor Kurt Anderson (Miramax/Melcher Media). Reading this handsome production is more than funny: it's a trip across time. The magazine's trademark was a wicked but attentively proofread mischievousness, and month after month it made me howl with laughter. I find from the newly published retrospective that it still can. Here's the weather squib from the top of a New York Times parody dating from 1992:

New York. Today, Sunny. High 85. Tonight, mostly dark, low 72. Tomorrow, canicular heat burns through early diaphanous clouds; aestival breezes expected. High 80. Yesterday, Tuesday. Details, page B14.

Observe that the piece is not immediately funny in any way, and doesn't have to be, because the seasoned reader of Spy loves to be lulled into thinking that there aren't any creatures under the bed, only to be transported into ecstasies by the sudden attack of a tickle-monster. The blend of fine writing, banality, and sheer irrelevance is sublime.

And before Spy, there was Esquire. Frank DiGiacomo's piece in the current Vanity Fair, "The Esquire Decade," sketches the steps that Harold T P Hayes took, once he became managing editor in 1960, to make Esquire the edgiest magazine going. I didn't come to that particularly party until it was half-over, but I remember the excitement with which the "Dubious Achievements" issue was greeted every year. Who could forget something that went like this:

oh, we thought it was at six oaks for the thousandth time.  Mickey Rooney got married for the sixth time at his home in Thousand Oaks, California.

The simple genius of the "Dubes" was to print the comic reaction to a story before the story. Talk about pre-emption! Mr DiGiacomo writes,

As Nora Ephron says, Esquire and the 60s were "the perfect moment of a magazine and a period coming together - not trying to say the period was something other than what it was, but telling us everything about it." And though the decade climaxed in violence and hysteria that no monthly magazine could stay ahead of, Harold Hayes and his troops at Esquire not only cracked the code of the new culture but also engineered the genome for the modern magazine. Traces of its DNA can still be found in today's magazines, including this one.

I have the October 2006 issue of Esquire before me. Beneath a not-very-flattering picture of Brad Pitt (but that's the point, of course), there's a lot of print about "The Esquire 100." This is what George W S Trow might call "the format of no format." It permits a jumble of items and photographs on every level of importance (and unimportance), presented in apparently random order. "No 038: Omega-3's: The New Fluoride." "No 039: Misguided Expert of the Year: The Dog Whisperer Should Just Shut Up." It's hip, sort of, I suppose. But it isn't funny. There's an earnestness the writing that is almost desperate. Just as the writers of the old Esquire and Spy behaved like ace eight year-old cutups, today's young journalists aspire to the gravitas of greybeards. (And don't go blaming boomers. Esquire may have shaped the intelligent boomer's sensibility, but it was not at all shaped by it.) Esquire and Spy both demonstrated, moreover, that high humor lies not in particular subjects but in the way even the most ordinary subjects are handled. Spy, for example, specialized in insulting but not inaccurate Homeric epithets. If Homer's sea was invariably wine-dark, Spy's Shirley Lord was always a "bosomy dirty-book writer." It didn't stop there. Here's a gem from 1988: "... all across town there was voiced astonishment at just how dirty a dirty-book writer the bosomy dirty-book writer is."

As you can imagine, I hope it won't be long before someone with half a brain realizes that there's money to be made in DVD packages along the lines of the (amazing!) Complete New Yorker. I've spent a lot of my lifetime laughing at funny magazines, and I that nothing else makes me half so nostalgic.

The other must-read is "Ruthless with Scissors," Buzz Bissinger's report on reasons why writer Augusten Burroughs (né Chris Robinson - did you know that? I didn't) might be worried about landing in deepish doo-doo. A looming court case may Frey the memoirist alive. Members of the Turcotte family - the original's of the Finches of Running With Scissors - feel humiliated by the book, as well as grossly misrepresented. The author's claim that it is they themselves who have outed themselves is severely undercut by one little detail:

It was so easy to figure out who the Finches were that Burroughs himself, in a 2003 interview with the online publication Bookslut, essentially told reporters how to do it. "The doctor was notorious in that area, absolutely notorious, so I always felt it was laziness on the part of reporters to question [the veracity]," he was quoted as saying. "All you have to do is search western Massachusetts doctors in the '70s, in North Hampton [sic] - how many psychiatrists were there - and you can access a lot of stories, lots and lots of stories. In September of 2002, the real name of the family was used in a People magazine profile of Burroughs. When I interviewed Burroughs, he said that he had not given People the name and has never revealed it publicly.

Hmm. Mind you, I'm not going to get very worked up about that "veracity" issue. While I can't say that I'm indifferent to the truthfulness of a self-proclaimed memoir, I'm going to take the wilder and more entertaining ones with a grain of salt and wait for the inevitable fallout that sooner or later blankets frauds. At the heart of Running With Scissors there is an abandoned child, or a child who felt abandoned. The antics of the people around him, which may or may not be true, help us get the depressing story down. If Mr Burroughs projected his own misbehavior onto the Turcottes, as their complaint appears to suggest, that wouldn't be the strangest thing that I've ever heard of about a dysfunctional childhood.

If you want to watch a decrepit old dinosaur rattle off a squeak instead of a roar while grimacing with a mouthful of missing teeth, don't miss Christopher Hitchens's profoundly witless column, "Why Women Aren't Funny." For shame, Mr Carter; this is the sort of trash that Spy would never have published.

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. 

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

January 01, 2007

Books on Monday: Vestal McIntyre's You Are Not The One

It gives me great pleasure to start off the New Year with a page about Vestal McIntyre's 2004 collection of short stories, You Are Not The One (Carroll & Graf). This is the first book  by a contributor to From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up that I've read, and it's a very auspicious beginning.

I wrote to Mr McIntyre when I added his book to the Books on the Side list at Portico, and he wrote back, telling me that he's finishing up a novel set in his native Idaho. He writes so brilliantly about New York City that I couldn't help feeling a little bit disappointed by this news. But the setting doesn't really matter, because the writing is sure to be absolutely top-drawer.

Read about You Are Not The One at Portico.

December 29, 2006

In The Nation

Here's what I did during my Christmas vacation: I read all the reviews in nearly twenty back issues of The Nation. Including the "Spring Books" issue from May. When I get behind, I don't fool around! The Nation's criticism is so much more substantial than the trash that too often appears in the New York Times Book Review that I feel somewhat foolish for taking the latter to task every week. At the same time, I have a terrible headache. All that brainy thoughtfulness!

I clipped five essays. David Thompson's warm appreciation (May 29, 2006) of Alan Bennett's Untold Stories will be tucked into the book. I don't know where to tuck William Deresiewicz's brisk dismissal (October 9, 2006) of Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, but I had to hold on to it because it sums up succinctly my dissatisfaction with the one Powers novel that I have read, Galatea 2.2.

The Echo Maker will tell you a great deal about neuroscience, environmental degradation and the migratory patterns of the sandhill crane, but like Powers's other novels, it won't tell you much about what its laboriously accumulated information and elaborately constructed concepts have to do with what it means to be alive at a particular time and place, or what it feels like. And that, crudely put, is what novels are for.

Mr Deresiewicz is particularly struck by the fact that Richard Powers wows his readers with unstinting displays of science. He's given a pass on affect because his material is "difficult." The review traces this back to a wistful yearning for science and literature to engage in fruitful conversation.

From Matthew Arnold to C P Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow those two modes of knowledge could be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already).

I doubt this demand will ever be satisfied, for the simple reason that no one really knows what it means, least of all the people who make it. But certainly one way it won't be satisfied is by treating the novel as a container for scientific ideas.

Jon Wiener's review of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown (October 23, 2006), is valuable for cutting Hofstadter down to size, or at least for stressing the distorting effect that a dread of American fascism had upon the writer's work. Another reassessment of received truths, Eyal Press's "In God's Country (November 20, 2006), reviews nine recent books under a "church and state" rubric. Mr Press reminds us that strong religious convictions have done far more good than harm to American life, as the single issue of civil rights for Afro-Americans makes perfectly clear, and he thinks that secular liberals are too easily scared by extreme fundamentalists. In any case, religious conviction must be respected; it was to ensure that respect, for any and all creeds, that the Founders proscribed an established religion. Mr Press quotes Madison, who wrote that religion

"flourishes in greater purity without [rather] than with the aid of government." He was right. The level of religious observance in America has long dwarfed that in various European countries where official churches still exist.

One cannot hope to change the religious conviction that, say, homosexuality is wrongful without first taking it very seriously indeed.

Finally, Lynn Hunt's review (May 29, 2006) of two books about the Terror seemed worth keeping, because it makes a very important point that I hope that it's not paranoid of me to regard as extremely important these days. Writing of Ruth Scurr's Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, Mr Hunt observes,

Scurr sets out to answer the same wrong question that has bedeviled so many accounts of the Terror. She asks how Robespierre could have come to incarnate the Terror and with it the entire French Revolution. The question rests on a double fallacy - that Robespierre is the Terror, that the Terror is the French Revolution - whose lure is easily understood.

In fact, Mr Hunt argues, Robespierre became a tyrant not by main force but by the consent of the Convention.

Robespierre undoubtedly turned many a memorable phrase because he believed that he spoke for the Revolution's most profound principles. But the other deputies only tolerated this pretension as long as the situation demanded what he offered: an ability to keep popular violence in check while indefatigably pursuing victory on the Revolution's multiple fronts and obscuring the fact that the "regime" lacked all the basic elements of rule. Once the French gained the upper hand in both the foreign and civil wars, Robespierre's days were numbered.

Mr Hunt concludes with chilling relevance.

Rumor, conspiracy, constant harping on imminent dangers, accusing political opponents of being unpatriotic, internment camps, even lists of suspects vaguely defined have all made a shocking reappearance in the US "war on terror," along with torture, a practice repudiated by the French even though they had grown up under a monarchy that routinely administered it under court supervision. If the leaders of the most powerful nation in the world can react in this fashion to the threats, albeit real, of small cells of terrorists financed by foreign powers, is it really so hard to imagine that the French responded as they did?

 

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

December 25, 2006

Measuring the World

American readers may be forgiven for expecting a novel translated from the German to be anything but funny. Thanks to the oeuvres of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, they may well expect all novels written by Austrians to be tedious or distressing. So before I say anything else, may I declare (!) that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (Knopf, 2006)is richly funny. It's a lot of other things as well, but, for the moment, I recommend it to you as a funny read.

Mr Kehlmann's subtle humor has been adroitly captured by Carol Brown Janeway's translation. I know this because I was lucky enough to show up at a severely underattended event in NoLIta at which the author gave his first reading in English ever, and it was clear that the laughs and the smiles were right where he expected them to be.

The gendarme wanted a passport.

There was no way he could know, said Eugen, but his father was honored in the most distant countries, he was a member of all Academies, had been known since his first youth as the Prince of Mathematics.

Gauss nodded. People said it was because of him that Napoleon had decided not to bombard Göttingen.

Eugen went white.

Napoleon, repeated the gendarme.

Indeed, said Gauss.

The gendarme demanded his passport again, louder than before.

Now, if that passage doesn't make you smile; if you miss the slapstick ineptitude of Gauss's expecting a Prussian policeman to be favorably impressed by the high regard of Napoleon, then perhaps Measuring the World is not for you. This novel has plenty to teach, but a certain comfort with history, or at least a ready willingness to consult Wikipedia, would appear to be a prerequisite.

Continue reading about Measuring the World at Portico.

December 22, 2006

In The New Yorker

The New Yorker never fails to surprise me. I'd have expected to see Orhan Pamuk's "Nobel Lecture" in, say, The New York Review of Books, but it sits very nicely in this year's fina issue of The New Yorker. As it's online, you ought to have no difficulty accessing and reading it. It happens to be an excellent introduction to the writer's themes, but it also makes an important declaration: Istanbul is the center of the world.

Having been lucky enough to visit Istanbul, I have no trouble going along with this proposition (which Mr Pamuk intends to be taken figuratively, as we'll see). Istanbul is a socket from which both the West and the Middle East swing. A Turkish, quasi-secular, quasi-Islamic city today, it has left many traces of the West uneffaced. There are, of course, the great Byzantine remains, most notably Ayya Sofia. There are also the souvenirs of more recent Western influence, dating back to the nineteenth century and the final decades of the Caliphate. The fact that Turkey's modern capital sits at Ankara has had a preservative effect on Istanbul as well - if too often, as Mr Pamuk points out in his book about the city, in the form of neglect. To a greater extent than any other city that I have visited (and I have never been to Rome), Istanbul appears to exist on several time-planes at once. Some of the bizarre things that theoretical physicists say about the world feel a little less unlikely by the banks of the Bosporus.

When Mr Pamuk was growing up, in the Fifties and Sixties, Istanbul happened to be about as backwatery as it is possible for a major city to be. No longer acknowledged by the rivals who begat it, the city limped along with a rudimentary, somewhat embarrassed cultural life. To be a Turk, one crossed the water to Anatolia. To be a writer, one went to Paris. Mr Pamuk's father, an amiable bon viveur who invested his inheritance in a string of failing enterprises, spent some youthful time in Paris, where he filled up notebooks with "poems, paradoxes, analyses." Two years before he died, the father gathered up his notebooks, put them in a suitcase, and delivered them to his son, in whose success as a writer he had never had any doubt, going so far as to predict that Mr Pamuk would win the prize that occasioned "My Father's Suitcase." The idea was that, at his convenience, the son would go through the notebooks, and see if there was anything that might - and this was left wide open.

In the event, Mr Pamuk did not find anything that might conceivably appear anywhere but in his father's notebooks. Reading them appears to have been a very unpleasant experience, because Mr Pamuk loved his father deeply but could not pretend that his writing was not that of an amateur. Early on in "My Father's Suitcase," Mr Pamuk writes,

By this time, I had been working as a writer for twenty-five years, and his failure to take literature seriously pained me. But that was not what worried me most: my real fear - the crucial thing that I did not wish to discover - was that my father might be a good writer. If true and great literature emerged from my father's suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed a man who was entirely different from the one I knew. This was a frightening possibility. Even at my advanced age, I wanted my father to be my father and my father only - not a writer. 

But, knowing what I know from Mr Pamuk's work, that "real fear" concealed a real hope. I expect that the contents of the suitcase were bitterly disappointing, because they were the work of a provincial writer, someone working far from the center. A writer without faith.

Orhan Pamuk has made Istanbul the center of the world by taking its complexity as seriously as possible and trying to set it in prose.

... for the past thirty-three years, I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days, and its night, making them a part of me, embracing them all. A point arrived when this world that I had made with my own hands, this world that existed only in my head, was more real to me than the city in which I actually lived. That was when all these people and streets, objects and buildings seemed to begin to talk among themselves, interacting in ways that I had not anticipated, as if they lived not just in my imagination or my books but for themselves.

Equal parts courage and obsession, Mr Pamuk's identification as a writer of Istanbul constitutes exactly the commitment that every great writer makes to what we call his "material." His belief in its importance transcends argument; it even transcends love. And it signifies that, however familiar the writer may be with Dostoevsky or Kafka, he is not a provincial who wishes that he could write about Paris or New York, where the "real writers" are. The real writers, he knows, are wherever they believe in what they're writing about. There is nothing easy about this faith, because it is essentially a faith in one's own creative powers. Mr Pamuk doesn't write about Istanbul, he creates it. He displaces the physical city with the literary city, which is a thousandfold more accessible. It is a miracle that writers writers of his caliber conjure out of bravado and hard work.

The question remains: does accepting the greatest literary prize that the West has to offer make Orhan Pamuk a "Western" writer? Don't look at me. It's a litmus-test sort of question, its answer pre-determined by the prejudices of the inquirer. In a way, all writers whose work reaches the Swedish Academy's attention are "Western" writers, toiling in that capacious and cosmopolitan tent in which capturing life in words is the only real project. At the same time, the grain of Mr Pamuk's outlook is distinctly "foreign" - Turkish. That's the most important part of his faith: that he write as a Turk. Not as someone who, like his father, ran into Sartre in the streets of Paris. I expect that, at least to all fearful and ungenerous minds, Mr Pamuk will appear to aspire to both titles, "Western" and "Turkish," and to be unworthy of either.

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.")

Nonfiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

December 18, 2006

Two That Got Away

In the past week, I've read two books that held my attention, moved me, and yet left me feeling that I have nothing very useful to say about them. I can point to them, and urge you to read them, on a "take it from me" basis, but I can't criticize them. I don't believe that I fully understood either of them. I do believe that the limitation is mine, not theirs.

Continue reading about two books that got away from me at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

December 11, 2006

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.

A few months ago, when From Boys to Men appeared, I bought a copy, because it's a print breakthrough for Joe Jervis, the author of Joe.My.God. But I was in no hurry to read it, and it languished on a shelf until just the other day, when I heard a clip of Joe talking about the book on Sirius Radio. I pulled it down and began at the beginning. I was hooked immediately. 

It's important to note that this is not a collection of coming-out dramas. The stories told here are more delicate, as each writer attempts to trace the journey from childhood ignorance to adult self-acceptance. There are common themes, of course - coping with being called "faggot" in the schoolyard, surreptitious play-dates with Barbie, and no end of unrequited affection - but they are played with amazing variation. Eric Karl Anderson, in "Barbie Girls," uses the doll to characterize his utterly asexual relationships with middle-school classmates, cultivated solely to secure him a place among the cool kids. After a spellbound moment at summer camp, the young Mr Anderson "knew that these weren't the right friends anymore" when he went back to school. Aaron Hamburger, in contrast, always knew that he was interested in other boys, but he broke his own heart anyway, with assiduously-maintained friendships with boys who rarely gave him more than the time of day.

To what extent is this material dated? Will little boys always be warned away from homosexual leanings, even after most people understand that choice is not involved? Will beautiful gay boys ever arrive at their young triumphs with the heedlessness of their heterosexual brothers? Will we ever know where the "homosexual" ends and "being different" begins? So much of the pointless pain inflicted on the contributors to From Boys to Men seems to have been motivated by a fear of alien-ness. So much of it seems peculiar to ill-educated, lower-middle class America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. (Although in Tom Dolby, whose contribution is entitled "Preppies Are My Weakness," we have one alumnus of Hotchkiss.) The life of secrecy endured by so many of the writers here must surely have been somewhat deforming, even if only privately.

Good fathers are in extremely short supply here, something that suggest to me not a causal relationship between lousy parenting and homosexuality but the possibility that a broken or unloving father will create an atmosphere full of problems for his son to write about later. The unhappiness of living with an unsympathetic stepfather suffuses Jason Tougaw's "Aplysia californica," perhaps the most conventionally literary contribution to the project. Mothers, as you might expect, appear both more to the fore and in greater variety. There is the sweet slut of Michael Gardner's "The Competitive Lives of Gay Twins," and there's the clueless loyal wife of Trebor Healey's "The Upshot." For me, the most harrowing piece is David Bahr's "No Matter What Happens," which features two moms, Sadie, the writer's biological mother, a disturbed woman incapable of nurturing a child; and June, his foster mother, who turns on him after an aborted sojourn with Sadie. Lee Houck's "Inheritance" presents an instinctively hostile grandfather, a man who can somehow see that his grandson is queer. Remarkably, nobody reports extensive beatings or other serious abuse.

From Boys to Men offers a catalogue of narrative strategies. Blogger Francis Strand writes about himself in the third person in "Five Stories about Francis," and this alone makes his piece a little bit funnier than it would have been otherwise, by accentuating the "drama" of the boy's reactions and resolutions. Viet Dinh's "A Brief History of Industrial Music" poses as a learned note about a pop genre to which the author has appended footnotes devoid of scholarly apparatus but crammed with intimate snapshots. In "Peristalsis," Mike McGinty offers a suite of droll thumbnails taken from years five through seventeen. Raymonde C Green switches among moments from his past to delay the impact of his high-pitched self-discovery. Two stories, "Guide," by Austin Bunn, and "The Boy with the Questions and the Kid with the Answers," by Horehound Stillpoint, focus more on troubled older boys than on the authors. Michael McAllister begins his fragment, "Sleeping Eros," with a moment of sexual awakening, but the moment quickly fades into the remarkable story of his parents' divorce. In this, he's in a sad but altogether normal position; it's his parents who have discovered that they are gay.

Vestal McIntyre, in "Mom-Voice," and E M Soehnlein, in "The Story I Told Myself," show how their own creative work as adolescents led them to self-discovery. In "Dick," in contrast, Alexander Chee gets creative as soon as he makes that discovery, at the age of eight. D Travers Scott, in "Growing Up in Horror," took a little longer, perhaps, but the results are not only funnier but more concrete - I wonder if he still has the film. Todd Pozycki's "The Lives and Deaths of Buffalo Butt" project an amiable figure whose homosexuality is something like the relieving resolution of childhood OCD.

I've saved Joe Jervis's "Terrence" for last, because, since I know Joe somewhat, his contribution has a VistaVision intensity that puts it in a class by itself. Perhaps the piece would be vivid even if I didn't know Joe, because the star of this story is the title character. With his dyed-brassy hair and his southern-belle gestures, he is the most exuberant queen in From Boys to Men. I call him the star because, like the sun, he illuminates and nourishes life. When the story begins, Joe is in an interesting place, actively but discreetly gay. He has not yet come out to his mother. As it turns out, Terrence has nothing to do with the eventual change in status on that front, but it is Terrence who teaches Joe first the shame of trying to keep his sex life apart from his daily life, and then the pride of uniting them with brio. Still a discreet gentleman - that's just who he is - Joe has found his own way to be proud of himself. Who knew that that pride would make him into a published writer and one of the most popular bloggers in the 'Sphere?

In a perfect world, there would be a companion volume, entitled From Boys to Men: Straight Men Write About Growing Up. Books such as the gay version subtly suggest that straight men have an easy time of growing up, but the only ones for whom that's true are assholes. Everyone else has to figure out a series of moves that will take him from latency to manhood. Unfortunately, our culture encourages men to forget each step of the way as soon as it is completed, giving rise to a bad faith that has filled the land with sour Gary Lamberts. Gary's creator, novelist Jonathan Franzen, has been critically roasted for sharing his missteps and compromises; in The Discomfort Zone, Mr Franzen violates the code of omertà that silences discussion of adolescent insecurity. Once you make it into the world of salaried heterosexuality in our world, you're expected to bluff your way onward with phony bonhomie. This may be why I've encountered so few engaging straight male blogs.

From Boys to Men: Gay Men Write About Growing Up, an anthology edited by Ted Gideonse and Rob Williams.(Carroll & Graf, 2006)

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?

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

December 04, 2006

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson

Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson is an agreeable read, short enough for an evening's pleasure. The narrator, at least for the first two-thirds, is very engaging, an intelligent American of Irish extraction who finds herself actually in Ireland for the first time at the age of forty-three. We know that she is involved in some sort of excitement - some plot, perhaps a heist - and the details are intriguingly slow to emerge. But once we know everything (and we know it somewhat sooner than the narrator has finished telling us), the novel begins to seem both slight and contrived. Our narrator hasn't been so smart, after all. That would be all right if her lack of foresight hadn't seeped into the book itself, as if drawn, in the manner of opposites attracting, by the presence of an ineffable masterpiece of Western Art, the picture by Johannes Vermeer whose title Ms Weber has taken for her book. This presence, we realize, has effectually promised us that nothing incongruously gross or slapdash will occur in the course of the story. When the narrator finally figures out the nature of the man with whom she has been dealing, however, the change in her voice is gross and slapdash. Surely she ought to have foreseen the possibility of this shattering denouement - and taken steps to assure herself that it would not befall her. Excellent as Ms Weber's writing might be, the "Well, duh," with which we cover the final pages represents an inordinate letdown.

I tend to stay away from books about the persistence of Ireland's "Troubles," and The Music Lesson reminds me why. Although raised entirely in Boston, and currently living on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the narrator has absorbed a full measure of the Irish South's rage against the Protestant British. It's impossible for me to be anything but impatient with such obduracy.

December 01, 2006

George W S Trow

It's a bit creepy. The Wikipedia page for writer George W S Trow has registered his death, a couple days ago, of "natural causes." Why am I having such a hard time believing the cause of death?

There was a time when Trow was the coolest writer going, no question. "Within the Context of No-Context" came as  a bombshell.

In the New History, nothing was judged - only counted. The power of judging was then subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged action, so men learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement. The world of power changed. What was powerful grew more powerful in ways that could be measured, grew less powerful in every way that could not be measured. 

The piece appeared in the November 17, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, and I didn't really understand it. I had no idea that something called "popular culture" was going to occupy center stage in the coming decades. I thought that the Sixties were over. I didn't know that the Sixties were about to come back, in Living Dead format.

Looking at the essay today, I'm inclined to say that the old History is still vital in certain parts of the world, and that anti-Americanism is its hallmark. People still make momentous judgments there. Americans, in contrast, living in the New History, are almost ridiculous - and Trow was the first to show why. He sailed past the known poles of right and left, capitalist and marxist, to discover an awful new world, one in which the serious is relentlessly menaced by the inconsequential.

In The Atlantic

For twenty years at least, James Fallows's writing has been the best thing about The Atlantic (except, perhaps, during his year or so as editor of US News and World Report). An affable but rigorous humanist, the former Crimson editor, Nader's Raider, and speechwriter for Jimmy Carter unfailingly makes whatever happens to interest him at the moment a matter of genuine general interest. (The Wikipedia entry devoted to him recalls, as I'm sure everyone who read it does, his praise of Lotus's Agenda  in 1992.) When I tuned in, in the mid-Eighties, Mr Fallows was in Japan. Now he and his wife - this time without their now-grown sons - live in Shanghai. I expect Mr Fallows's dispatches from China to be among the most important sources of news and reflection on Zhongguo for as long as he produces them.

The first in the series, "Postcards from Tomorrow Square," appears in the current issue of The Atlantic. You might say that there are six postcards in all: four "cautions" and two "mysteries." The cautions are directed to the Japanese, loathed more than ever by young Chinese, and apparently incapable of adjusting official behavior in a more positive manner (ie by refusing to visit the Yasukuni Shrine); to Olympic athletes (the air pollution in Beijing, even after projected cleanups, may be lethal to more than a few strenuous exercisers); to Americans, who ought to be doing more to take advantage of what Mr Fallows finds to be a natural inclination among the Chinese in our favor, or at least in favor of the way we do things; and finally, to "Everyone." This last boils down to a suggestion that China's boom may be doomed by a combination of endemic corruption and a general failure to trust strangers. The mysteries are "How Skilled Is the Leadership?" and "What Is the Chinese Dream?" These are matters about which Mr Fallows intends to learn a lot more, and we are all going to be the better for his investigations.

In the same issue, a list of "The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time." The more I read of Rex Douthat's accompanying essay, in which he discusses methodology and the names that didn't make the cut, the more preposterous the entire undertaking seemed. Any list that identifies Bill Gates as influential, even in fifty-fourth place, is deeply suspect; Mr Gates may have benefited from gross miscalculation on the part of IBM, when it entered into its DOS contract with Microsoft, but it would be hard to say in what way Mr Gates has been personally "influential." He's just a good businessman (and not really a great one). To avoid such missteps, I would restrict the competition to Americans who have been dead for at least fifty years. Panelist Walter McDougall's assertion that "By definition, it would seem [that] the ultimate measure of influence is simply what sells" is gross beyond belief: consider the influence of Mabel Mercer upon Frank Sinatra and his entire generation of singers. (Neither makes the list.) In the end though, it's a start, this list. Interestingly, each of the ten panelists was allowed to work with his or her own idea of the meaning of "influence."

November 30, 2006

Never Let Me Go, now on schedule

Moving at a pace that would make a snail look like a Z Car (does anybody remember that joke?), the group re-reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go over at Good For You has languished recently, largely because, in devising what I think of as the Daily Blague's daily specials, I quite neglected other undertakings. Now I hope to advance the project with at least one entry toward the end of each week.

Never Let Me Go is an amazing re-read. Knowing exactly where the story is going, I can see how Mr Ishiguro manages to get us there while systematically withholding information. Because the novel is told by a sensible but apparently artless young woman, and is largely devoid of impressive literary effect, it is easy to underestimate. The tone of Never Let Me Go is more straightforward than that of any other of Mr Ishiguro's book, but the narrative is certainly no simpler. Following it closely shows it to be laid out with the greatest care.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

November 21, 2006

Kehlmann and Cabaret

My reading vacation continues apace. Having done with Nature Girl yesterday - if you can imagine a Feydeau farce set on a hummock called Dismal Key, then you must already have read this hilarious book - I was not quite ready to start in on Thomas Kehlmann's much more serious Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Pantheon, 2006). Little did I know that Mr Kehlmann's book is not a very great deal more serious than Mr Hiaasen's; its drollery is just very dry. I would find this out in the afternoon, when I read nearly all of the novel, which is about two contemporaries, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, who devoted their careers to the eponymous project but who otherwise had nothing in common. When we got back to the room after breakfast, I picked up the irresistibly packaged Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, by James Gavin (2nd edition; Back Stage, 2006). Opening the book way past the halfway point, I read about the birth of Reno Sweeney (the cabaret, not the Cole Porter character) and the death of the piano bar Backstage. Mr Gavin seems generously disposed toward most of his numerous subjects, but the atmosphere of dish is Venusian.

Today's lunch at the Mermaid (the Buccaneer's beachfront terrace) was not quite as amusing as yesterday's. There was an unbelievable "bar backup" that obliged me to eat my lunch without a glass of wine (the outrage!), and the background music was looped on the same inane steel-band piece for nearly an hour. More significantly, there were fewer guests to watch, as families headed home for Turkey Day. We saw this happen at Dorado Beach two years ago. Shades of "Death in Venice." Very sunny shades, bien sûr.

On Tuesdays, there is a Manager's Reception in the ruin of a sugar mill that stands next to the main building. I wanted to go, but after a long walk down Grotto Beach and back, Kathleen was pooped. She stretched out on the wide window seat and napped instead. That's why I almost finished Measuring the World.

Kathleen's decision not to go into Christiansted occasioned much inner and some outward rejoicing. Not only would I not have to worry about her when, inevitably, she checked in with a phone call ninety minutes after the appointed time, but she'd really keep things restful and simple. While I was measuring the world, she was laughing over a piece about a "swag party" in Vogue. That's the ticket.

November 17, 2006

In The New York Review of Books

In his whimsical U and I, Nicholson Baker rejoiced in sharing the same "carnal circuitry" with his hero, John Updike. Mr Updike's commentary on "After the Flood," the exhibition of Robert Polidori's chromogenic prints ("photographs" doesn't do these three-by-five knockouts justice) that is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes it clear to me that I do not share the celebrated author's moral circuitry. Writing of the ruined interior, 1401 Pressburg Street, Mr Updike laments,

... it is the wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violated and exposed?

This is very offensive. Who is Mr Updike to say that the needs of this room's occupants were inadequately met? The unspoken but palpable allusion to the Last Judgment only makes the implication of guilt-by-inadequacy (and poor taste) all the more shocking. How does Mr Updike know what this room looked like before the flood? And where does he get the idea that the house is in one of New Orleans's "humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored"? A glance at Google Maps locates the house in Gentilly, a solidly middle class part of town. I don't know what's worse, Mr Updike's condescension or the laziness with which he extrapolates poverty from desolation.

A few lines later, Mr Updike writes of "our fascinated, sociologically prurient gaze." This is followed by references to Susan Sontag's On Photography. I believe in the possibility that reading On Photography might help thoughtful people recognize that gaze and replace it with an empathic regard. The power of Mr Polidori's photographs is their firm and still grasp of fact, whether the view be of the Queen's Bedroom at Versailles or the living room at 1401 Pressburg. Both photographs are of rooms first and only implicitly of lifestyles. The latter also captures the fact of devastation, a state that, in me at least, arouses sorrow and pity, not prurient fascination. There is nothing prurient in recognizing that this could happen to me.

Mr Updike's mistitled piece ("After Katrina") also seems insufficiently aware of the cause of the damage on exhibit. Katrina the storm is held responsible. But of course New Orleans was not destroyed by a storm. It was, as the title of the Met's show has it, flooded. And it flooded because the responsible authorities - principal among them the Army Corps of Engineers - had neglected the proper maintenance of the levees. It's a pity that, for all the images that we have of the disaster, we don't have a stationary video of the water's steady but probably not turbulent rise. It's an image that would bring home to more people the avoidability of it all.

In The New Yorker

Peter J Boyer's "Downfall: How Donald Rumsfeld reformed the Army and lost Iraq" is the indispensable read in this week's New Yorker. For one thing, it explains that much of what now looks like incompetent leadership was in fact the sad consequence of crossed wires and contrary agendas. The Defense Department, flogged on by neoconservative officials and advisors, planned to crown the capture of Baghdad with the imposition of a provisional Iraqi government (remember Ahmad Chalabi?). Then American forces would leave. The State Department would have nothing to do with this scheme, and argued persuasively for the establishment of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which would be administered by an American proconsul until some sort of legitimate Iraqi constitution had been adopted by Iraqis. So American forces did not leave Iraq. On the contrary, they stood by while the one outcome for which they had not been trained engulfed the country: insurgency.

If there is a single worst decision in all this mess, it is probably Paul Bremer's decision to discharge all Baathist soldiers and officials. As Mr Boyer writes, "In effect, half a million men, many with guns, were sent into the streets." But the arrival of a "huge instant bureaucracy" within the Green Zone signaled to Iraqis that the Americans were in Baghdad for the long haul. Because this had never been part of the Defense plan, and because our military had never been trained to do what amounted to police work, the American presence was as ineffective as it was disliked. 

Mr Boyer also traces the career of Andrew Marshall, a military thinker who has spearheaded what is called the "Revolution in Military Affairs. One gathers that Secretary Rumsfeld spent more time implementing aspects of the RMA overhaul - shifting troops, reducing costs - than worrying about Iraq. Without actually saying so, the piece suggests that Mr Rumsfeld might well have thought it reasonable to regard Iraq as someone else's problem: his problem was to bring the armed forces up to speed. And this he is credited with having accomplished, largely by exploiting the war to railroad through a host of micromanaging changes. (How this meshes with unarmored troops in Iraq escapes me.)

The lesson for leaders to draw from this sad chapter of American history is that a leadership's insistence on a united front and foreclosure of dissent is the royal road to disaster. Had the argument between State and Defense been conducted in the open, more conservative Americans might have been reluctant to support the war.

Donald Rumsfeld's protracted attempt to convince anyone who would listen that Iraq had not succumbed to insurgency is frighteningly remarkable, worthy of a tragic hero.

November 15, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction

This week's cover story is Lisey's Story, the new Stephen King novel for which literary claims are being made, not least by the author himself. Jim Windolf's review is favorable, but it does not venture an answer to the literary question - which, for the matter of that, it does not even ask. The literary question about Stephen King is not whether horror stories can be literary. We know from Poe that they most certainly can. The question is whether the quality of Mr King's writing is literary. I myself do not think that it is: there is not likely to be anything significant within the covers of his books that will fail to appear in a competent film adaptation. Mr King is, at his best, a compelling scenarist; as a writer, he is flatly, artlessly vernacular. That would be why, when he was in grade school, his classmates would pay to read his stories, while his teacher would complain that he was writing junk. In any case, whether Lisey's Story marks a break with Mr King's pulp-toned past cannot be a matter of plotting. As Mr Windolf's extracts are not very substantial, the quality of the book is impossible to judge on the basis of this lengthy review. 

Brooke Allen's fine review of The Stories of Mary Gordon, by, of course, Mary Gordon, is largely favorable, but its concluding sentences point to an interesting failing in the collection.

It's a shame, though, that the stories haven't been provided with dates or arranged in a clear chronology. Tracking the progression of a writer's career is always instructive - and in a career like Mary Gordon's, particularly so.

Paul Gray is rather harder on the late Frederick Busch, whose posthumous collection, Rescue Missions: Stories has just appeared.

Although the individual stories display Busch's usual craftsmanship, they begin to feel manipulative when read in sequence. Seeking out the cheek with acne is the way most of these characters look at the world. When the setting is upstate New York, where Busch spent much of his adult life, descriptions point out "snow pitted by car exhausts" and "several feet of dirty snow and twisted slush" and "mud-colored ruts of ice," but ignore the momentary enchantment of a snowfall.

Kaiama L Glover may have wanted more space in which to explain her response to The Translator, by Leila Aboulela: her review is pinched and stressed almost to the point of incoherence. Happily, however, there are a few helpful sentences.

Of course, conflict is inevitable in a novel set in Scotland and Sudan that explores desire in the context of profound religious devotion. And in some ways Aboulela passes too lightly over the obstacles posed by this tension. But while her forays into politics and Western media manipulation of Muslim extremism can seem facile, she more than compensates with beautiful passages on Islam's essential purity and poetry. Aboulela has a talent for expressing the simple wonders of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of unbroken faith. Just as deftly, she uncovers the intricacies of how such faith can be challenged - suddenly, subtly.

Even as I complain that such-and-such a reviewer was clearly the wrong choice for a given book (see Daniel Mendelsohn on Jonathan Franzen, for example), so I must lament that, from time to time, I am unqualified to attempt lucidity when confronted by certain books. Will Self's The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future is so unappealing a proposition (set in a bleak, postapocalyptic future) that I clutched at the final paragraph of Nathaniel Rich's unfavorable review with something like a drowning man's desperation.

What the author himself means to say is not much clearer. Self's model of Dàvinanity [don't ask] seems constructed to show religion's tyranny over its devoted followers, the arbitrariness of its symbols and tenets, and its brutal effectiveness at stifling critical thinking. But these criticism of organized religion are hardly unconventional, and are here conveyed with all the nuance of Dave's misanthropic tirades. If anything, the message seems to be that Dave's grumpy views of society are myopic and wrongheaded (though amusing) - a conclusion most readers will reach the first time they meet the blustering cabbie. And so we're ultimately left with a pair of grotesque worlds, facing each other like two mirrors, but reflecting nothing.

Finally, there's Barry Unsworth's The Ruby In Her Navel: A Novel and Love and Intrigue in the Twelfth Century. Jason Goodwin gives this book, set in the Norman kingdom of Sicily, a generally favorable review, but notes that the use of a first-person narrator "creates tonal difficulties:

creates tonal difficulties: Thurstan's language is a kind of cod-medieval English, something you might call haulberk. "Secretly I thought he made the better appearance, because he was also slender and graceful in movement, whereas I have more weight to me and more thickness in the shoulder." Some people may like this kind of thing, and I can be lulled along by it, but it's a sort of novelistic limbo.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

November 13, 2006

James Salter's Last Night

James Salter's recent collection of stories, Last Night, portrays a world that I'm glad I don't live in. In a nutshell, a world populated by ageing or ailing morally-unmoored sensualists. Nobody's exactly nasty, but few are faithful if presented with a better offer. Moody men longing for pretty girls - or longing for the pretty girls that now older girls used to be - don't question themselves or their sense of entitlement. If you act like a man by, say, piling up a fortune on Wall Street, then you deserve a babe. I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of men with this outlook. I'm just glad that I don't know any of them very well. The commoditization of other people, even of one's own children, is rampant in this collection.

The stories are very well put together, though, and, once you've started, you keep going. Each story has its own little train wreck, and it's fascinating to watch, even if it leaves you feeling a bit compromised. Mr Salter is a master of heightening narrative impact by telling bits of his stories out of linear order and by withholding unsuspected revelations that make a dent, changing a story's contours completely.

I can't say a thing about the stories individually without risking spoilage, but I can say a few things about their interesting background. They occupy an affluent world, one that curiously combines a vague Jewish background with access to life at the top. One might argue that Mr Salter is a more refined and controlled Philip Roth, but with his West Point education and his very distinguished combat-flight record from the Korean War he is incomparably further from immigrant roots. And yet his men remain painfully self-conscious. If not in the sense of feeling awkward, they still need to have it known that they've been regulars at this restaurant and lived at that address. The following passage, from "My Lord You," one of the longer stories in the collection, captures the fatalistic atmosphere of Last Night.

Her husband's business was essentially one of giving advice. He had a life that served other lives, helped them come to agreements, end marriages, defend themselves against former friends. He was accomplished at it. Its language and techniques were part of him. He lived amid disturbance and self-interest but always protected from it. In his files were letters, memorandums, secrets of careers. One thing he had seen: how near men could be to disaster no matter how secure they seemed. He had seen events turn, one ruinous thing following another. It could happen without warning. Sometimes they were able to save themselves, but there was a point at which they could not. He sometimes wondered about himself - when the blow came and the beams began to give and come apart, what would happen?

"Ruinous things" usually involve some sort of uncontrolled carnal impropriety.

I don't often read fiction with a sense of profound recognition, as though the writer had peered into my very soul. I'm much too peculiar for that to happen. But I read Last Night as if it were set in a country that I'd never heard of before, where expectations were very different. Despite the craftsmanship and the beautifully sustained tone, the fact that I didn't encounter a single object of genuine curiosity in these pages obliges me to conclude that Last Night is limited work.

November 10, 2006

In The New Yorker

For me, this week's standout articles are Rachel Cohen's essay on Leonard Woolf and the latest installment of Janet Malcolm's assessment of Gertrude Stein/Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. Sometimes Ms Malcolm writes about the famous writer, and sometimes she writes about the famous couple. This week, she writes about the women as Jews. Stein was quietly but firmly committed to her identity as a Jew; Toklas went so far in the other direction as to be received into the Catholic Church. She did not share her partner's acceptance of the old maxim, "When a Jew dies, he's dead," but fervently believed in a paradisiacal afterlife, in which she and Stein would be reunited - if she prayed hard enough to get the unbaptized Stein out of limbo.

The essay also touches on the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge. Stein and Toklas were both unusual women, and it is difficult if not impossible to extrapolate what we don't know about them from what we do. Stein was womanly, in a strong sort of way; Toklas was ladylike in a guarded sort of way. And yet in their indifference to what people thought about them they were almost feral, and it is this quality, I expect, that will keep them alive for many years to come. Notwithstanding a startling want of appealing looks, they seemed never to doubt that they would attract admirers - even if everybody preferred Stein.

Leonard Woolf toiled dutifully in the shade of a grove of geniuses; it was only when the grove was cut down by death that he showed his stuff, in a serial autobiography that he began in his eighties. Rachel Cohen gracefully sketches the reception of his earlier works, novels and political histories, in "Village Scribe," noting that his wife and friends always got better, longer reviews. Praising Victoria Glendinning's new biography, Leonard Woolf, Ms Cohen writes,

through the ages of Woolf's life - the childhood among impoverished middle-class Jews (the family fortunes diminished when Woolf was eleven and his barrister father died); an adolescence reading classics at St Paul's on scholarship; intellectual emergence at Cambridge; seven difficult and transformative years in Ceylon as a colonial administrator; and nearly six decades of editing, marriage, war, and labor politics - one sees the flickering aspirations of Leonard Woolf the writer, which, though often invisible to others, remained, to him, a central fact of his existence.

November 08, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

November 06, 2006

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford

San Francisco, March 27, 1944

Darling Muv,

..... The main reason I haven't written for so long is that you never answered my question about the Mosleys. I see in the papers that they are living in Shipton, so I suppose you do see them. I was so disgusted when they were released, & so much in sympathy with the demonstrators against their release that it actually makes me feel like a traitor to write to anyone who has anything to do with them. However I see that it is difficult for you, & not your fault....

*

Oakland, January 6, 1993

Dear Miss Manners,

.... I need your advice rather urgently. To explain: I've just got a FAX machine, and have been sending out lots of letters on it. One of my sisters in England also has FAX (much to my amazement) so naturally I sent her one straight away. I was surprised that she didn't answer by return - hers came the next day. However, she did say that she was in London when mine arrived, hence delay. Which brings me to the point: What is an answer "by return" in the case of FAX?  .....

Perhaps every new technology requires some re-thinking of the correct response. For example, telegrams (which are probably too young to remember) almost always had bad news; as they were jolly expensive, the answer was simply, such as "Desperately sorry. Mitford," only 3 words. Or if it was just a broken limb, not a death: "Rotten luck. Mitford." Again, only 3 words; ample, at a shilling a word.

Eagerly awaiting your response...

The writer of these letters could be extremely rigorous and unforgiving, but for the most part she was full of fun. She was always blunt. In a letter of 1990 to Katharine Graham, Decca Mitford tries to sugar-coat her advice about handling painful matters in memoirs, but the coating just drips right off. "But you can, & SHOULD, remember that it's YOUR book & deal with events according to your own taste."

Jessica Mitford Treuhaft, the fifth of the six Mitford sisters, American firebrand (and even a member of the Communist Party for a while) died a little over ten years ago, on 23 July 1996. Now we have her letters, in Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, edited by Peter Y Sussman (Knopf, 2006). Even if I weren't something of a Mitford-watcher, this would be a book that I'd have to have. It is in so many ways a companion to Decca's inimitable 1960 tell-all (that didn't begin to tell all), Hons & Rebels, one of the funniest books that I've ever read. Almost from the start, Decca rebelled against the class-bound ways of her semi-aristocratic family. She wanted to be free to make her own decisions, and she learned early that this would require her to be able to support herself. And of course she would have to run away, something that would require a Running Away Fund - which, amazingly, she funded before putting to its intended use. Decca didn't just run away, either; she ran off to the Spanish civil war with her cousin/husband, an episode that required major diplomatic intervention. Then it was off to America, where, among other things, the couple ran a cocktail lounge. And then, Esmond Romilly was lost in action in 1941.

Decca's next move, more or less, was to marry a Jewish labor lawyer, with whom she soon settled down in Oakland, California. With two of England's most notorious anti-Semites among her sisters, and a family that breathed low-grade anti-Semitism without thinking about it, Decca had done just about everything that she could to alienate her family. But that was never her intention ...

Continue reading about Decca at Portico.

November 03, 2006

In The New Yorker

There's a lot of good stuff in this week's New Yorker. The two pieces that stood out for me were John Seabrook's Profile of Will Wright, the designer of Raid on Bungling Bay, Sim City, The Sims, and Spore. Although Mr Wright never earned a college degree, he has filled a large corner of the computer world with food for thought disguised as fun. Mr Seabrook's portrait is complex and intriguing, but Mr Wright's world will never been my world. I jumped with sympathy at a remark of Joell Jones, a painter and Mr Wright's wife (from whom he has separated, it seems).

I think it frustrates Will that I don't play his games. Clearly, his games matter, on a deep level, to many people - take these online diaries people keep about their Sims. Wow. I don't know if they're avoiding their lives or learning about them. Me, I don't want to play a game to learn about myself.

The other piece was Steven Shapin's review of Steven Johnson's "vivid history," The Ghost Map: The story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic, and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. At the heart of this book is a map drawn up John Snow, a Victorian physician, who was sure that the cause of cholera - which even he thought must be some sort of "miasma" - was waterborne. He was right, but people were slow to listen. The real engine of London's great sanitation schemes was, as Mr Shapin reports, the flush toilet, which vastly increased the amount of effluent produced by Londoners and eventually brought the Thames to a high reek. Mr Shapin's conclusion is trenchant.

Victorian London illustrates how much could be done with bad science; the continuing existence of cholera in the Third World shows that even good science is impotent without the resources, the institutions, and the will to act.

The most astonishing news emerges from a parenthesis in Hendrik Hertzberg's opening Comment in "The Talk of the Town" "(... the reported two-million-dollar salary conferred upon a Republican congressman who became the pharmaceutical industry's top lobbyist immediately after shepherding into law a bill forbidding the government to negotiate prices for prescription drugs.)" I'd like to know more about that; it's another item for the album that I've started to keep about the privatisation of public wealth. Although perfectly legal, it seems, the two-step strikes me as falling somewhere between letters of attainder and treason. It certainly keeps the government out of the free market! But then, Republicans aren't as ideological as they seem; bottom line, they're kleptocrats.

November 01, 2006

In the Book Review

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

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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. 

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

Bareback

In the past few days, I've shoved almost everything aside in order to read the manuscript of an unpublished novel, written by an unpublished novelist. It took a while for me to get going, but by the fourth chapter (of twenty-four) I was hooked. I read about half of the novel yesterday alone.

I'm not going to say a word about the novel itself - not a peep. Not yet, anyway. What I do want to talk about is the raw thrill of reading something about which I knew absolutely nothing in advance. It was quite unprecedented. Ordinarily, I know quite a lot about any book that I pick up. The very fact that it has been published (and by whom) predicates a great deal. I will almost certainly have picked up some buzz about it, or at least about its author. (In the case of Jane Eyre, which I'm reading for the first time, I even know about poor Bertha Rochester.) Ordinarily, nothing reaches me without having passed through a formidable number of gates.

In this case, there was only one gate, and the author controlled it, deciding whom among his acquaintance he would permit to read the novel. Those of us who did so paid for our own copies in paper and ink cartridges. I was never confronted with a redoubtably thick manuscript, because I printed the chapters when I was ready to read them. When I made notes, I flagged the page with yellow stickers; interestingly, the stickers are clustered at the center of the manuscript, where I really began to understand the novel. Not its story - that was perfectly lucid from the beginning. But I had no idea what kind of a book I had in my hand until I was well into it. That may sound like a criticism of the novel, but it isn't. It's testimony to the power of context and preconceived ideas to channel the mind in advance of actual experience. Every once in a while, it's true, those preconceived ideas turn out to have been ill-conceived, and the context shifts while I'm in the middle of a book ("so that's what it's about!"), but even in such rare cases, my reading is guided from the start. Here, there was nothing. Just me and the book.

It was exciting, scary, and very rash. After all, I like the author. I'd have hated to have to say, in one way or another, that the novel hadn't captured my interest. I only stopped worrying about that, pseudoparadoxically, when the stickers began to proliferate. By then, you see, I was sure that I was reading the real deal.

Bravo, my friend! Thanks for the honor and privilege.

October 23, 2006

Absurdistan

A quick riffle through entries that I have uploaded but not published (there's a difference) informs me that I haven't mentioned Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan here except in passing. The video of his New Yorker Festival reading reminded me how much funnier the circumcision passage was when he read it aloud. This is unusual: writers, in my experience, rarely bring much interpretive force to readings from their own work. Perhaps they've been coached: a good reading might deprecate the value of merely printed text in saleable books. Something like that happened here. If the key to a deeper appreciation of a novel is hearing the book read interpretively, then, in my view, there's something that the author forgot to write down.

This observation genuinely pains me. Mr Shteyngart's imaginative generosity is extraordinary. At Portico, I wrap by judging Absurdistan to be "too cynical to be genuinely literary." Perhaps that's too strong. Perhaps, instead of "literary," I ought to have said "novelistic."

Read about Absurdistan at Portico.

October 20, 2006

Science in The New Yorker

Michael Specter's report on water, "The Last Drop," in this week's New Yorker, is full of gee-whiz numbers. It is estimated that a person needs fifty litres of water a day, but Americans, on average, use more than any other people: between four and six hundred litres a day (but the figures have been dropping since the Seventies). It takes thirteen hundred gallons of water to produce a hamburger. The Hetch Hetchy Dam - which may be demolished - provides the Bay Area with 260 million gallons of water a day.

Then there's this: 

Water is precious, but not like oil, which, once burned, is gone forever. While there is almost no human activity that doesn't depend on water in some way, it never actually disappears: when water leaves one place, it simply goes somewhere else.

Water that dinosaurs drank is still consumed by humans, and the amount of freshwater on earth has not changed significantly for millions of years.

Mr Specter focuses on water problems in India, specifically in Chennai (Madras), where aquifers are challenged, insufficient, or no longer reliable for drinking water. On a bright note, he talks with hydrologist Peter Gleick, who takes heart from the rehabilitation of the Cuyahoga River, in Cleveland, so polluted that it caught fire in 1969 - it was covered with a layer of flammable fluids. The piece introduced me to the concept of virtual water: if it takes a thousand drops of water to make a drop of coffee, almost all of that water comes from the place in which the coffee beans are grown, and it is "virtually" exported to Starbucks and French cafés.

Rather less mind-bending, but actually quite fiendishly subtle, is Adam Gopnik's piece about Darwin. Mr Gopnik isn't interested so much in Darwin's great ideas as he is in Darwin's sly presentation of them.

Turning the pages, we realize that Darwin, the greatest Victorian sage, does not write like a Victorian sage. He writes like a Victorian novelist. Absent from his work is the pseudo-Biblical rhetoric, the misty imprecations favored by geniuses of a more or less reactionary temper, like Ruskin and Carlyle, or the parliamentary ponderousness of the writers of a more or less progressive sensibility, like Macaulay and Arnold. Darwin's prose is calm and exact and, in its way, witty - not aphoristic, but ready to seize on a small point to make a large one, closer to George Eliot and Anthony Trollope than to his contemporary defenders, like T H Huxley and John Tyndall.

Mr Gopnik notes that Darwin's explosive conclusion - "We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World" - might have been expressed in any number of less provocative and disturbing ways, and his unpacking of the sentence is fascinating.

Neither of these articles appears to have been uploaded to the magazine's site. In checking that out, I came across a video of one of the New Yorker Festival events, one in which, after a protracted silence, I asked the first post-reading question. Amazingly, they didn't just capture my voice. But keep listening, for George Saunders on pop culture.

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.

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

October 17, 2006

At the Dining Table

Under the weather today. La grippe, peut-être. Yesterday, I got my copy of Les Bienveillantes - the text runs to 894 pages; there are also appendices - and I will try to spend as much time with it today as I can. Laid out like a baroque dance suite, the novel begins with Toccata that, while arresting, doesn't seem very zippy. That's just an observation, not a complaint. I haven't had to use the dictionary very much, but I'll need to have one nearby. This may be a book to read at the dining table. The author, Jonathan Littell, is an American who spent time in France as a child. I wonder if that will make him slightly easier to understand. Reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision, I'm sometimes unsure of the ironies.

Reporter Jeff Stein has been peppering his subjects - Congressmen and their aides, CIA muckety-mucks - with a simple question: "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?" Some people know and can answer the question intelligently, but most can't and don't. A few appear to regard such information as beneath contempt. Read Mr Stein's appalling report and weep.

October 13, 2006

Christopher Hitchens

The current, 16 October, issue of The New Yorker, devoted  to media matters, is full of good stuff, but even more compelling than Malcolm Gladwell's report on computerized movie plots is Ian Parker's profile of Christopher Hitchens. Mr Hitchens belongs to the elite squadron of preposterously gifted English writers that also includes Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. I remember rather liking him when I first saw his byline, but I was brought up short by the piece in which he discussed the discovery that his mother, long dead, was Jewish. There was something not quite right about it; in Mr Parker's profile, Mr Hitchens is quoted as "being pleased to find that I was pleased" by the "tidings." That's the sort of thing that I might say to a friend, or even write in a letter; putting it in front of the public is reckless. Then I was startled by his campaigns against Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. Again, I agreed with him - particularly about Mother Teresa - but I didn't share his passionate engagement. Most recently, of course, Mr Hitchens has tilted toward the neoconservatives, resigning as a columnist at The Nation and becoming a regular on Fox News. I have no use for the man now, at least as a commentator, although I shall probably have a look at his forthcoming God Is Not Great.

Although I am about the same age, Mr Hitchens's bluster gives me an insight into the revulsion that "baby boomers," taken collectively, inspire in younger people. There is the imperious idealism that can't be bothered with practical matters, such as driving carefully and giving up smoking. Mr Parker works in a few mild zingers, and the best of them is on point:

At times, Hitchens can look like a brain trying to pass as a muscle. He reads the world intellectually, but emphasizes his physical responses to it. Talking of jihadism, he said, "You know, recognizing an enemy - it's not just your mental cortex. Everything in you physically conditions you to realize that this means no good, like when you see a copperhead coming toward you. It's basic: it lives or I do."

Mr Hitchens is an ardent advocate of human rights; one might say that dedication to that cause is his leading edge. But his determination to force recognition of them upon various sovereign states is unlikely to foster something more important than human rights: human happiness. Idealists never seem to care about happiness other than their own.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

October 09, 2006

Calamity

Marisha Pessl thanks Susan Golomb, her (uncredited) agent, in the Acknowledgments that appear at the end of Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I don't see why. I myself should like to bring a lawsuit against Ms Golomb. Thanks to this lazy agent, I had to wade through three hundred pages of exuberant foam (if I may rearrange slightly Jonathan Franzen's blurb) to find out what all the excitement was about. The second one hundred fifty pages were excruciatingly boring. They were also very annoying. The little tics that had been funny for a little well before degenerating into facetiousness had by now become positively irksome.

Marisha Pessl is a young, first-time writer. She is not yet thirty. That she should be unaware of the limits to a mature reader's patience is not surprising. That her agent should fail to enlighten her, with a bit of gentle but determined insistence, is grounds for non-payment of percentages.

As you can see, Special Topics in Calamity Physics has put me in curmudgeon mode. I'd never have read it if it hadn't gotten such glowing reviews, reviews that I don't believe that it deserved. The overwriting, as I've noted elsewhere (here and here) is prodigious. Here's another example:

Deb [a grief counselor], a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

I hasten to note that this passage comes from the chapter entitled "Justine." As I have never read Sade, I would not catch any references to Justine that may be curled up in the passage that I have quoted. But nothing could justify the incredibly awkward clause about Mirtha Grazeley, which doubles the sentence's length to no purpose whatsoever. The "walking wedge of Camembert" quip made me think of consulting Pope's Peri Bathos: there's a wrongheadedness about this metaphor, not least because Camembert is one of those stinky cheeses that tastes much milder; a triple crème might have been more apt if, again, rich cheeses were categorically disagreeable. There is no need to mention the narrator's destination (always these AP classes!). There is no real need to assert the narrator's presence at all. Talk about "fatty in word"! The two sentences could easily be wrapped into one:

Deb, a short, yellow-complexioned woman, slow in movement and fatty in word (a walking wedge of Camembert) had made herself right at home in Hanover Room 109, erecting a variety of posters and cardboard displays[, where she]. On my way to AP Calculus, as I darted past her room, I noticed, unless Mirtha Grazely had wandered in (probably by accident, they said she often confused other rooms in Hanover with her office, including the Men's Room), Deb was always sitting in there alone, keeping herself occupied by paging through her own Depression pamphlets.

And I think that I've been generous to leave in "her own." It's not that I'm against panache, but I do insist on the discipline of deleting all words that do not add to the sense of a passage. (We don't need the information about Mirtha Grazely here.) Life is too short for gratuitous embroidery, and, once I got to the "good" part of the book, I saw that the embroidery was far more extensive than I'd imagined. As the logorrheic immensity of the book laboriously came about, at about the four hundredth page, it became clear that the cool kids whose antics preoccupy the novel's first three hundred pages are not very important to the suspenseful tale that really does have one turning pages toward the end.

As published, this novel is still very much a work in progress. It is perhaps two books, one of them a coming-of-age story that might interest Ms Pessl's age cohort but would be almost certain to tire older readers, the other a rather thin and unfulfilled tale of Oedipal discovery. That's the damnedest thing about Calamity Physics: having been stuffed to revulsion with clever but pointless bon-bons for what seems like phone-book length, one ends up wanting much more of the substantial fare that the ending promises but does not quite deliver.

A good editor might have helped Marisha Pessl wrest a truly Nabokovian novel out of her hulk, but I'm told that agents don't deal with editors who want to make substantial changes, that agents today simply shop a book around on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. If that's the case, then Ms Pessl was done a terrible disservice by the publishing industry. She does not strike me as the sort of person who doesn't care if people read her book as long as they buy it; quite the contrary. But many readers will weary of Calamity Physics long before the wind freshens and set it aside. Many more will learn the story by word-of-mouth and never crack it open. And readers who like to stay au courant (see I Confess, Hitchcock, 1953) should not be flogged for hundreds (hundreds!) of pages with lines of arch ostentation.

Mr Franzen, by the way, is another client of Susan Golomb. Perhaps that how the Calamity Physics came to bear the following blurb: "Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut novel is a dark, strong drink." Most astute: what Mr Franzen neglects to mention is that the espresso portion of dark, strong drink is served beneath a swimming pool of foam.

October 04, 2006

In the Book Review

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

The stand-alone novel reviews this week are barely mediocre at best. If I needed a silver lining, I could find relief in this week's edition's failure to add any titles to my tottering wish list - but then, this isn't about me. The nonfiction reviews are far better. Max Frankel's review of Michael Lind's American Way of Strategy, however, suggested a coinage: the "cuckoo essay." There's nothing crazy about such a piece; it's merely an underdeveloped essay posing as a book review. The underlying motif of every cuckoo essay is this: "Now, if I were writing this book..."

Fiction & Poetry

David Orr devotes the entirety of his "On Poetry" piece to the difficulties of teaching poetry - and to Stephen Fry's valiant determination to overcome them with an amusing handbook, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. Mr Orr thinks that the comedian has got it right.

In the end, what comes through most vividly in The Ode Less Travelled, and what makes it work so well for the amateur, is Fry's belief that poetry, like cooking, "begins with love, an absolute love of eating and of the grain and particularity of food." ... Poetry, then, isn't a symbol for a type of behavior, it's an experience on its own..."

We have four novels this week, and, in addition, a roundup up five more. Rob Nixon's review of Half of a Yellow Sun, by the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Nghozi Adichie, might have been improved by a healthy extract from the book. Mr Nixon appears to assume that fiction about enduring the horrors of civil war in the Third World is ipso facto worthy of attention. Tugging at our heartstrings with partial summaries of Ms Adichie's story is wrongheaded. The importance of a work of fiction springs from the quality of its prose, not from the pathos of its tale - although I despair of getting Dickens fans to understand this.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

October 02, 2006

Sightseeing

Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing would probably never have come to my attention if it hadn't been for McNally Forbes's idiosyncratic way of arranging fiction regionally. The compact, handsome Grove Press edition caught my eye on the South Asian shelf. Never having so much as thought of Thai fiction, much less read any, I was stricken with cosmopolitan remorse. I chose the book after the most cursory examination. Remorse turned out to be rewarding.

Sightseeing is a collection of eight short stories, written in English - okay, this is Thai-American fiction, not so exotic after all - by a man who, born in Chicago in 1979, was taken to Bangkok at the age of three. There would have been three more dislocations when, in 1995, Mr Lapcharoensap returned to the United States alone. All six of his stories are narrated in the first person, five of them by young people of Thai or Thai-American descent. The exception, "Don't Let Me Die In This Place," is told by the failing father of an American businessman who has married a Thai woman and settled in Bangkok. A typical American man who wants to take care of himself but no longer can, the father doesn't take to the "exotic" atmosphere of Thailand. You feel very sorry about this helpless plight, but at the same time you can just imagine what tales his daughter-in-law and grandchildren would tell about an impossible old man.

Continue reading about Sightseeing at Portico.

September 28, 2006

Current Reading

At the moment, I'm reading, mostly, two very different books - although perhaps they're not as different as I might think. Both involve headstrong charmers, people who can't keep their feelings to themselves. They walked the earth together for a few years, and they both had international careers.

Firstly, I am reading Jane Eyre, for the first time. Aside from Shirley, I haven't read Charlotte Brontë. I read her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager, and I didn't like it very much. I regarded Jane Eyre as a novel for girls, by which I mean: not a novel for adults. And indeed I have yet to encounter a passage that a mature person might construe differently from an adolescent. (And reconstruction is what Jane Austen is all about in the end - her novels are always age-appropriate because they have the knack of growing up with you, taking on shades of meaning that would be utterly lost on a high-school student, or even on a thirty-something.) But Jane Eyre is so basic a novel in the experience of literate women that I thought I really must have it for myself. It is not bad, and it is not boring. The injustices to which Jane is subjected at the start, and at the Lowood Institution until it is reformed after the typhus outbreak, seem cartoonish, not because they're absolutely implausible but because they seem designed to rouse the indignation of good-hearted girls. But the narrative voice, as in Shirley, is anything but predictable. Brontë does nothing to hide her cosmopolitan character. That's enough to hold my interest. At the moment, I've just reached Thornfield and Miss Fairfax and Jane's nice little room. I'd have to have lived under a rock all my life not to know what is going to happen, but for once I'm letting Jane herself tell me.

The other book that I am reading is Rodney Bolt's The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America. And it is a remarkable life. Even without the Mozart connection (Da Ponte's principal claim to fame), Da Ponte's story would be incontournable. As Mr Bolt quite rightly points out, Da Ponte was born in the twilight of a medieval empire (Venice) and died in the dawn of the hyperpower (the United States). He is buried in Queens probably not five miles from where I write. Who'd a thunk it?

The most amazing little fact that I've swallowed in The Librettist of Venice is that Pietro Metastasio (né Trapassi; the pseudonym is a hellenicization), the doyen of eighteenth-century opera librettists, composed music for each of the arias that he penned. He never showed the music to anyone, though; the exercise was only for making sure that the text was singable. Imagine!

And there's one other really remarkable thing about Mr Bolt's book. He includes a color reproduction of a portrait of Mozart, by Johann Georg Edlinger, that was discovered in "late 2004." How this picture has stayed out of the papers during the bisesquicentennial of Mozart's birth (250 years) is amazing to me. It shows what Mr Bolt describes as "the effects of high living," and as an image its power to smash the Meissen idea of Mozart is unsurpassed. The wonder of Mozart is that he was a male human being just like me - and yet! He was not some angel-made-flesh. He liked to party. He was much worse at cash flow than I am. And when the picture was painted, in 1790, he was probably clinically depressed.

Are you ready?

Continue reading "Current Reading" »

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

September 25, 2006

Francine Prose on Reading Aright

What is the opposite of "disappointing"? "Satisfactory" won't do - it has a sigh of disappointment built into it. We need a word that means "every bit as good as it ought to be." That would be the word for Francine Prose's indispensable Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Like Them. I don't have much to say, beyond BUY IT NOW. Look, I'll even throw in a link, and I never link to points of sale when I'm writing about books.

If you love reading (not necessarily the same things loving books, but I'll let it pass), then you probably don't have any use for theories about the hidden construction of what you're reading. You're perfectly happy to be a dupe. Reading is a pleasure, and theory is for people who are not particularly fond of reading. But just because you're not deconstructing texts, there's no reason not to pay attention. The term for attention paid is "close reading." Ms Prose describes her first close reading as an adult.

When I was a high school junior, our English teacher assigned us to write a term paper on the theme of blindness in Oedipus Rex and King Lear. We were supposed to go through the two tragedies and circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness, and vision, then draw some conclusions on which we would base our final essay.

It all seemed so dull, so mechanical. We felt we were way beyond it. Without this tedious, time-consuming exercise, all of us knew that blindness played a starring role in both dramas.

Still, we liked our English teacher, we wanted to please him. And searching for every relevant word turned out to have an enjoyable treasure hunt aspect, a Where's Waldo detective thrill. Once we started looking for eyes, we found them everywhere, glinting at us, winking from every page.

Long before the blinding of Oedipus and Gloucester, the language of vision and its opposite was preparing us, consciously or unconsciously, for those violent mutilations. It asked us to consider what it meant to be clear-sighted or obtuse, shortsighted or prescient, to heed the signs and warnings, to see or deny what was right in front of one's eyes. Teiresias, Oedipus, Goneril, Kent - all of them could be defined by the sincerity or falseness with which they mused or ranted on the subject of literal or metaphorical blindness.

Reading Like a Writer is a very simple proposition: a collection of close readings of passages that Ms Prose admires, organized by a descending scale of focus, from "Words" and "Sentences" to "Details" and "Gesture," with two summing-up chapters that are delightfully at odds, and a list of "Books to Be Read Immediately." A list, in short, of all the books that Ms Prose has been talking about in the course of Reading Like a Writer.

I can only hope that this book will become a textbook at better schools (well, at every school, if I can dream).

Continue reading about Reading Like a Writer at Portico.

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."

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

Two Recent Novels

This afternoon, I finished Claire Messud's very beautiful novel, The Emperor's Children, which I want to think about for a while, and possibly reserve for a re-reading. Ms Messud's writing has a somewhat disturbing quality, for me at least, in that it seems engagingly complex while I'm reading it, but almost unadorned as it precipitates to memory. Something was going on that I didn't fully grasp, and I expect that I'll have to read one of its sixty-seven lapidary chapters very closely to get a grip on the nature of the mastery. All I mean by this twaddle is that the novel made me vibrate - I positively trembled as 9/11 approached - but left me with no way of explaining its unquestioned power.

Looking back at some of the novels that I've read recently, I find that the only book that compares with Ms Messud's for quality is the utterly different Disobedience, by Naomi Alderman. Full disclosure: a member of Simon & Schuster's publicity staff sent me (and who knows how many other bloggers) an e-spiel about the book, offering to send me a free copy if I was interested. I was intrigued by the offer as much as anything (it was a first for me), but I was genuinely delighted by the book. It's not going to get anything like the reception that has been bestowed upon The Emperor's Chilldren, but I recommend it just as highly. You can read about it here

September 13, 2006

Twilight of the Superheroes

As Portico, the Web site at which everything of value at the Daily Blague will, in theory, end up, gets bigger and bigger, and older and older as well, I find that I'm depending on it as a sort of external memory. All writing serves that purpose, but it's much easier to retrieve information in hypertext.

That's my only justification for publishing an unfavorable response to Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg. I seem to recall reading a story somewhere in which a man and a woman were up on a Manhattan rooftop. Did somebody jump? Or just think about it. I decided that I didn't like Ms Eisenberg's outlook. But I let myself be swayed by the flood of positive comment about the new collection. If I'd written something down at the time, then I'd have known why not to buy the book. My brief remarks will also suggest to you the limits of my aesthetic competence, my ability to enjoy.

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:

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

September 11, 2006

Alternatives to Sex

Stephen McCauley completely cracked me up on page 5 of his new novel, Alternatives to Sex.

As I was going over my shirt for the second time, I figured it would be easier to stick to my sex resolution and break a bad habit if I kept myself busy. I'd recently turned forty - and more recently than that had turned forty-four.

Mr McCauley is a master of comic timing. It isn't that what happens in his novels is so funny; it's his narration that's side-splitting. He doesn't go in for the outrageous behavior that one finds in Patrick Dennis's novels, but then he doesn't have to: he has taken Dennis's comic voice and made it his own. Consider this masterful introduction:

Marty was Edward's friend, someone I'd always disliked and felt in competition with. Marty exerted an unhealthy degree of influence over Edward. Edward was susceptible to the influence, not wholly benign, because Marty was his idea of rugged, strutting masculinity: a retired marine who'd served in the first Iraq debacle in the early 1990s and then started a business that Marty (and Edward, Marty's mouthpiece) claimed was raking in several hundred grand a year. In terms of domineering personality, unapologetic machismo, and bulky muscularity, Marty would have been a perfect lover for Edward. Unfortunately, for the sake of Edward's romantic prospects, Marty was a woman. Martine, in fact. A stocky African-American woman from Arkansas with the captivating voice and precise articulation of a Shakespearean actress.

Behind the surprise of Marty's gender lies a world of information and attitude. William, the narrator, doesn't like competing with Marty for Edward's attention. Is there a message here that perhaps the narrator himself isn't picking up? As a put-down, "mouthpiece" is tinged with an affection that amplifies William's labile ambivalence about his friend. And William is just a bit too sure of what Edward is looking for in a lover when he insists that Marty, who is everything that William is not, would be perfect if only she were a man.

Continue reading about Alternatives to Sex at Portico.

September 10, 2006

Sontag's Diaries

The Times Magazine this Sunday comes in two parts: a gruesome report of what Katrina has done to the children of the Gulf Coast, and a "New York Issue." The latter features excerpts from diaries that Susan Sontag kept between 1958 and 1967. The following comes from the last cited entry.

My image of myself since age 3 or 4 - the genius schmuck. I allow one to pay off the other. Develop relationships to satisfy principally one side or the other.

Sartre (cf. "Les Mots") the only other person I know of who had this "certainty" of genius. Living already a posthumous life, even as a childhood. (The childhood of a famous man.) A kind of suicide - with the "work of genius you know you'll do when adult your tombstone. The most glorious tombstone possible.

Sartre was very ugly - and knew it. So he didn't have to develop "the schmuck" to pay off the others for being "the genius." Nature had taken care of the problem for him. He didn't have to invent a cause of failure or rejection by others. As I did, by making myself 'stupid' in personal relations. (For 'stupid,' also read 'blind.')

Although one might just as well say that Sartre, as a European, did not feel the demotic pull to ordinary-ness that always seems to have needled Sontag, the line about the posthumous life, about the most glorious tombstone, is brilliant, if also slightly mistaken. I should think that the "certainty" is more widespread than Sontag thought. It might not be a certainty of genius, exactly, and perhaps "certainty" is not the word that I need. But to live as though what one wrote were certain to survive - even though one can't be certain of any such thing - the resolution to live "as if" is the key to all intellectual life. And by "intellectual life" I simply mean participation in some of the strands of thought that have come down to us from the past and that will continue to worked wherever life is stable.

In an earlier entry, Sontag confesses to a "morbid" appreciation of beauty. This may have been the cause, or it may have been a side effect, of a brilliant sense of surface. Surface is all that we get to see, but what we think about when we look at something is often something that we can't see, such as the thing's function. This obliquity prevents us from seeing other possibilities - a good thing most of the time, because who needs the distraction? But in order to invent or to understand, we have to strip away our half-conscious associations and deal directly with the elements at hand. And to begin, we have to see them. Sontag had very gifted eyes, and she saw things with a poet's rigor. Her writing is accordingly astringent. It forces us to squint and frown until we see what she sees - or until we give up, in which case she makes us feel the chill of her contempt.

Sontag had the good luck to be an aggressively self-centered beauty at a certain moment in time, one in which it was not intellectually acceptable to be "pleasant." She quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "To smile at opponents and friends alike is to abase one's commitments to the status of mere opinions, and all intellectuals, whether of the Right or Left, to their common bourgeois condition." Ah, the contempt of the bourgeois for the bourgeois! It runs through Sontag's prose like a strong electrical current - to question it is to make fatal contact with it.

The entries show what one might have guessed, that Sontag was a great bluffer.

I write to define myself - an act of self-creation - part of process of becoming - in a dialogue with myself, with writes I admire living and dead, with ideal readers.

But of course! Why else go to the trouble of writing? But how insincere and dishonest it can seem to more workmanlike minds. In the intellectual life - as in no other walk - the only way to grasp something new is to pretend that you can grasp it.

The entries published in the Magazine have been selected to compose an informal essay "On Self." What distinguishes the intellectual from the scholar and scientist, and from the artist as well, is that the intellectual's self, his or her person and character, is part of the equation. To a greater or lesser degree, the intellectual's way of life speaks of his work. How she lives, what kind of parent he is: these must accord with the published thought. Intellectuals don't, as a class, find it any easier to live up to their ideals than other people do, but they are never allowed to forget this. The pressure for intellectuals to live proper lives is bifocal. in one sense, they see themselves as social vanguards, understanding their society better than other types of professional. Very much against this smugness is the shame of knowing that their lives, like that of the people to whom they feel superior, are unspeakably privileged vis-à-vis the lives of the world's poor and disenfranchised. In her diaries, we find Sontag engaged in an unremitting attempt, sometimes breezy, sometimes miserable, to bring her life up to snuff. She may have been the smartest girl in the room, but success at this central task was elusive.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

September 04, 2006

Old Filth

Jane Gardam's Old Filth is a book to love. The title perfectly demonstrates the impact that changed perspectives can have on our judgments of other people. To bear the name "Old Filth," as Sir Edward Feathers does, would seem to be shameful, but in the sometimes topsy-turvy manner of English exaltation, it is actually an honorific, or at any rate has become one by the time the book begins. It is, moreover, an invention of its bearer, a joke made by the protagonist in the prime of his life - the time of his life that we see very little of, perhaps because it's so easy to imagine and recreate. In his prime an important barrister who, for sound reasons, decided to relocate his practice to Hong Kong, Sir Edward slapped himself with an acronym: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. There's an irony in the fact that Sir Edward hasn't failed in London at all (although this doesn't emerge until the end of the novel, and is easy to miss). There's mystery, too, because of the occlusion of Sir Edward's maturity; in the novel, he is either an ingenuous, vulnerable, but stout-hearted youth or an octogenarian legend. We don't see him become rich and famous. It is suggested that he owes his success to a lucky shipboard encounter followed by well-honed diligence. Business as usual. Asked to consider writing his memoirs, he demurs: "I've grown my image, Veneering. Took some doing. I'm not going to upset it now."

Continue reading about Old Filth at Portico.

September 02, 2006

End in Tears

If Hannah Goldsmith has appeared in earlier Inspector Wexford mysteries, I haven't registered it; nor can I recall an instance of such dry comedy as this fully-developed character affords. A sergeant with the Kingsmarkham police force in the latest intallment, End in Tears, Hannah is stridently politically correct. She is shocked when a nasty old man whom she is interrogating talks of an illegitimate baby.

She, who could hear of any perversion, incest, bestiality, extreme sadism, with equanimity, as deeply shocked by hearing the word "illegitimate" on anyone's lips. Even more, perhaps, on these wrinkled lips, surrounded by white stubble. Illegitimate! It was unbelievable.

In the course of investigating the murders of Amber Marshalson and Megan Bartlow, Hannah falls in love with her junior officer, DC Baljinder Bhattacharya. The course of true love does not run smooth. The pair are strongly attracted to one another, but perhaps for this very reason Bal holds back on the sex, wanting to get to know Hannah first. Which drives Hannah crazy. They have - a misunderstanding. But by the time Bal gets to come to Hannah's rescue, their romance has completely overshadowed the murder mystery. You never know when Ruth Rendell is going to try something a little different, even if it is in her twentieth Wexford!

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.

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

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 28, 2006

Lord Chesterfield

Kathleen went to bed, but didn't go to sleep. I asked if I could help by reading her something. Reading Kathleen something always puts her to sleep. This would seem to be a comment on how boring I am if we did not remember how deeply we wish that our parents would put us to sleep with the stories that we ask them to read. Their assurance that everything is okay lets us drop into the semiconsciousness of slumber. Reading "fundamentally" - opening the book to whatever and going from there - from the Letters of Lord Chesterfield, a book that I keep on a certain pile of books, turned out to be almost perfect.

It was almost perfect because it almost put Kathleen to sleep. Unfortunately, it woke me up. Having been "fundamental," I came across the most amazing bit of worldly wisdom. Mind you, Philip Stanhope was writing to his bastard son a century after the events under discussion:

Richelieu (by the way) is so strong a proof of the inconsistency of human nature, that I cannot help observing to you, that while he absolutely governed both his King and his country, and was, in a great degree, the arbiter of the fate of the fate of all Europe, he was more jealous of the great reputation of Corneille than of the power of Spain; and more flattered with being thought (what he was not) the best poet, than with being thought (what he certainly was) the greatest statesman in Europe; and affairs stood still while he was concerting the criticism upon the Cid.

It's difficult, reading this, to disagree with Mrs Lintott (Dorothy, I'd swear her prénom was, the Frances de la Tour character in The History Boys), when she denounces history itself as the record of male incompetence. It is also difficult not to feel really stupid about not reading Lord Chesterfield morning. noon, and night.

August 26, 2006

You said it, honey, not I (Claptrap Update)

From the protracted preamble to the chapter entitled "Deliverance," on page 311 of Special Topics in Calamity Physics:

Without the disturbing incident of this chapter, I'd never have taken on the task of writing this story. I'd have nothing to write. Life in Stockton would have continued exactly as it was, as placid and primly self-contained as Switzerland, and any strange incidents - [catalogue deleted] - might be regarded as unusual, certainly, but in the end, nothing that couldn't be dully reviewed and accounted for by Hindsight, forever unsurprised and shortsighted. [Emphasis added]

So self-indulgent is this young author that she doesn't even recognize the very bad review that she has just given to the bloated nothing that she has scribbled on three hundred bound pages.

The success of Marisha Pessl's debut can only be ascribed to a triumph of publicity. Negative commentary has been muted; the gatekeepers, while not entirely comfortable with the book, have plumped for encouraging it. I haven't spoken with any ordinary mortals who've actually read it, so I don't know just how exceptional my dislike might have been. But I know that I am poised at the much-talked-of moment when, as Janet Maslin put it, the author dumps her "booster rockets" and the story takes off. We'll see. Even if it turns into the best yarn ever, that would not excuse the Stage IV cancer of what I've already had to put up with.

August 25, 2006

Claptrap

It occurs to me that I haven't been reading at my usual rate. It's true that I've been busy, but it's also true that I'm mired in the middle - or not quite the middle - of Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics. As of page 180, from which I am going to quote, Special Topics is a wildly overwritten but deadeningly mediocre imitation of Donna Tartt's superb The Secret History.

He cleared his throat, stuck his hands in his pocket with ox-in-sun slowness. I suspected Jade had recently tipped him off to my feelings - "Gag's gaga over you," I could hear her saying, "like so gone, like fixated," - because lately, when he looked at me, a shabby smile drifted across his face. His eyes circled over me like old flies. I suffered no hope, no daydream that he felt  anything similar to the way I did, which wasn't lust or love ("Juliet and Romeo be damned, you can't be in love until you've flossed your teeth next to the person at least three hundred times," Dad said) but acute electricity. I'd spot him lumbering across the Commons; I'd feel struck by lightning. I'd see him in the Scratch at he'd say, "Howdy, Retch"; instantly I was a light bulb in a series circuit. I wouldn't have been surprised if, in Elton, when he trudged by my AP Art History class on his way to the infirmary (he was always on the verge of measles or mumps), my hair rose off my neck and stood on end.

Lets hope it's not, ahem, the mumps! The last sentence is particularly unfortunate, couched as it is in the conditional mode. Serious metaphoric overreach! It should read: "Whenever he passed by me my hair stood on end," or something similarly simple. We don't need AP Art History (please!) or trips to the infirmary for childhood diseases (excuse me?) to get the picture. But I'm not sure that Blue van Meer, the precious narrator of Special Topics, gets the picture. She's lost in Lingoland, where on every desk there stand at least three "Power Vocabulary" calendars.

Or, as Darren Reidy says in the Village Voice - how I wish I'd said it - "Her métier is claptrap..."

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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.

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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.

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

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.

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

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!

Fiction

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

July 24, 2006

Through a Glass, Darkly

Fans of Donna Leon will not be disappointed by her latest Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, Through a Glass, Darkly - the fifteenth in the series. Paola Brunetti is still reading English literature, cooking boffo meals, and sparring lovingly with her husband. Signorina Elettra is still producing slim dossiers of useful information into the provenance of which the Commissario is far too wise to inquire. It's time to spread out the map of Venice (or Venedig, as my Hallwag City Map map puts it) and follow Brunetti from the Questura, in the Campo San Lorenzo, to Murano, where there's trouble in one of the vetrerie.

It's also an occasion for watching a very gifted writer give distinctive shape ...

Continue reading about Donna Leon and Commissario Brunetti at Portico.

July 20, 2006

Fun Home

funhome.jpg

With Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel has convinced me that the term "graphic novel" is not an oxymoron. Without naming names, I'll just say that none of the other exemplars of this genre amounted, in my view, to more than a stunt. None of them seemed adult enough to merit association with conventional novels. Chris Ware's work has much more in common with cinema than it does with prose fiction; it's frozen film.

Technically, Fun Home is a memoir, not a novel. But it utilizes the narrative techniques of fiction. Its structure reminds me somewhat of that of Sophie's Choice. A handful of facts are established early, and then the gaps between them are filled in, culminating in a climactic recognition for the reader as well as for the narrator. The motion of the story is recursive, and with each pass the retrieved material takes on a deeper richness. Finally, there is Ms Bechdel's very firm grasp of her motifs. Where other entrants in this field do not appear to have done very much reading, it's clear that Alison Bechdel has had a thoroughgoing literary education. Indeed, her linkages to Proust and Joyce are completely successful, not for a moment appliquéd. Her craftmanship is astonishing.

I'm astonished and I'd like to remain astonished for a little while....

Continue reading about Fun Home at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

July 18, 2006

Never Let Me Go Reading

Comment-Entry "JMK 1" has been added to the Never Let Me Go thread at Good For You.

July 13, 2006

Up at the Villa: Book into Film

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Up at the Villa, Philip Haas's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name, is one of my favorite movies. Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies all turn in fantastic performances, and the décor is opulent. So, when the novel fell into my hands, I was avid to read it. Imagine my surprise.

In the movie, the Fascists are intensifying their control of daily life. Foreign residents are required to register with the people on a weekly basis. Against this background, Mary Panton, the heroine, is in something of a pickle when a young man shoots himself in her bedroom - and uses a handgun given to her by the man who wants to marry her. Rowley Flint, a dissolute but wealthy American, comes to her rescue, and helps her to dispose of the body.

The body is discovered, along with Rowley's gun, which he substituted for Sir Edgar's. Two days later, he is detained by the police, with Sir Edgar's weapon on his person. This means that Sir Edgar will be in the soup when he returns from Cannes - all guns must be registered! Mary remembers what the Princess San Ferdinando, a wealthy American widow, told her about Beppino Leopardi, the chief Fascist in Florence and a man who has leered in Mary's direction. I won't spoil it here, but Mary undertakes a somewhat elaborate and very daring ruse, and pulls it off. She gets Rowley out of jail and Sir Edgar's gun.

But as Sir Edgar is about to be Governor of Bengal, Mary sees that she can't be Caesar's wife; eventually, the story of the boy in the bedroom will get out. So she lets Sir Edgar off, even though this leaves her with no marital prospects (Rowley is married) and no money.

In the book, Rowley is English and unmarried, so Mary agrees to marry him. Also, and by the way, nothing that occurred in the second paragraph of my synopsis occurs in the book. No Fascists, no gun problems, no elaborate ruse. I might add that the elaborate ruse is the heart of the movie, and a real caper. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise to find it missing from the book. Screenwriter Belinda Haas evidently made it all up.

Nonetheless, the novella succeeds, because it does what movies usually don't: it takes us into Mary's mind. Nor does the book outwear its welcome. A reprint using old plates, with acres of white on every page and not too many words, the Vintage edition currently for sale is a very quick read. For anyone half as interested as I am in the transformation of books into movies, Up at the Villa provides a wonderful pair of experiences. I would recommend reading the story, first serialized in Redbook, of all places, in the spring of 1940, first. I wish I could have done it that way.

July 12, 2006

Never Let Me Go Group Read

In the end, I've decided to locate the group re-reading of Never Let Me Go at Portico. I fear that the exchange of views about Kazuo Ishiguro's novel would come to annoy regular readers of the Daily Blague who don't care to participate in the group re-read. I shall, however, mark every new entry with a brief mention and a link here.

To participate, send your remarks to me in an email. (Be sure to put the title of the novel in the subject line.) I will add what you send to the Portico page.

A simplicity that the Hailsham "students" would have understood.

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.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

July 10, 2006

Tom Lutz on Doing Nothing

Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), embodies a new type of book - new to me, anyway - one that I'm tempted to call the "California Monograph." The first exemplar of this sort of writing that I came across was Leo Braudy's From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 2003), which I read two years ago. I didn't write it up, because I didn't know quite what to make of it. Mr Braudy had lots and lots of interesting things to say about manliness, but I feared that I'd missed the message. Mr Lutz's book suggests that looking for messages in this kind of literature is superfluous, because messages are superfluous. The idea is to present the complexity of life while avoiding neat, reductive generalizations.

Doing Nothing is an engaging read, almost as stuffed with interesting details as From Chivalry to Terror. It is in one way a companion volume: where Mr Braudy looked at warfare as the defining masculine activity, Mr Lutz recognizes that idleness is the masculine daydream. (It's interesting to note that the two come together in the underworld of thugs, where extended idleness is punctuated by occasional improvisatory violence.) Doing Nothing delivers on its promise to trace the history of this daydream in America, and it does so by parading the various shapes and figures that have incarnated idleness over the past two centuries and more, beginning with the apparent philosophical difference between Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. Franklin exhorted his readers to be busy and productive; Johnson published The Idler. Right from the start, however, Mr Lutz is eager to muddy the picture. Late in life, particularly during his long mission at Paris, Franklin was a sybarite, spending his days and nights enjoying the pleasure of conversations with pretty ladies. Johnson, meanwhile, labored to produce the Dictionary, a monumental effort that indeed produced a monument. Which one was the worker, which the drone? In each of the seven subsequent chapters, we're presented with the equally puzzling archetypes of indolence that were associated with the age: the loungers and Rip van Winkles of the early Republic, the communists and bohemians of the Civil-War era, the neurasthenics of the Gilded Age, the Flappers of the Twenties and the bums of the Depression, the Beats, the hippies, and, finally, today's slackers - many of whom, such as the Japanese hikikomori, seem to me to be in serious need of medical attention.

Relying wholly on documentary evidence, Doing Nothing is necessarily a review of narratives. Only occasionally does Mr Lutz dig for facts and figures; his concern is with changing attitudes toward work and leisure, and these are for the most part reflected in writings (and in other media later) of some sophistication. I was intrigued to meet Joseph Dennie...

Continue reading about Doing Nothing at Portico.

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.

Continue reading "Book Review" »

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.

Fiction

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?

Continue reading "Book Review" »

June 26, 2006

Never Let Me Go: Group Reading Here

This is to announce a group reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, to begin two week from today, on Monday, 10 July. Joining me at the outset will be Ms NOLA and JKM, and we've all read the book once already, but you are welcome - nay, encouraged! - to join. I don't know what the pace will be, but I prefer to keep it on the slow side.

Having experimented with group readings before, I'm still experimenting. This time, I'd like to try the following very simple procedure. Simply write your comments as email and send them to me at portico@mindspring.com. I will post them directly, as entries at the Daily Blague.

If you haven't read this gripping, horrifying and finally transcendent novel, now's a good time (the book has come out in paper). If you have read it, you're probably like Ms NOLA, JKM, and me: you want to experience "the second time" - which, in this case, will probably prove to be a lot more different from the first time than most.

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. 

Continue reading "Book Review" »

June 15, 2006

Tacitus

In the issue of October 15, 1966, The New Yorker published a story by Edith Templeton, "Talking of Count Sternborn." I was eighteen and in my freshman year at Notre Dame. I was very taken by Ms Templeton's sly tone, and I found her use of Tacitus's deadpan equivocations - not equivocations at all - very clever. I had never read any Tacitus - avoiding Latin class was one of my proudest achievements, although teaching myself the language was not proving a success - but I remembered what the narrator of the story had to say about him.

As I listened to the cook, I thought that if Tacitus had written my mother's history he would have stated, "It has been said that during the month of June of that year she journeyed to Switzerland, be it because she wanted to savor the beauty of that country, or be it because she wanted to display her fashionable clothes." I was twelve years old that summer in the nineteen-twenties, and I did not care for history, but I was greatly taken with Tacitus - the nobility of his bitterness, his uncomfortable lucidity about people's behavior, and his shattering, wooden-faced irony. I had memorized such passages as "While a great fire devastated the town of Cremona, the temple of Diana was spared, be it because the Goddess protected her shrine, or be it because it was situated on the outskirts of the town."

I believe that this story appears in the long out-of-print collection, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I'm not sure. I've tried to get hold of it from time to time, just for the pleasure of re-reading the story, the title of which, of course, I forgot. All I remembered was a Bohemian castle, a little girl, and Tacitus. Yesterday, I also remembered (d'oh) that the story must be available in The Complete New Yorker, and of course it is.

Thanks to Google, I was able to track down that temple in, or just outside of, Cremona. Here's Tacitus (Historiarum, III, xxxiii):

Per quadriduum Cremona suffecit. Cum munis sacra profanaque in ignem considerent, solum Mefitis templus stetit ante moenis, loco seu numine defensum.

It's so marvelously different in Latin. Tacitus needs only four words what it takes twenty to say in English. That's the fun of translating top-drawer Latin, and also the reason why translations quickly date, as fashions dictate different ways of unpacking the lapidary compression.

It's interesting, don't you think, that Ms Templeton, in real life a dedicated votary of the goddess of love, misremembered Tacitus. Notes inform me that Mefitis is the goddess of malaria "whose ravages in the valley of the Po must have been serious in antiquity." (Loeb Classics, Nº 111)

Count Sternborn is a neighbor of the narrator's family who has been unlucky in love, and as the story goes along little Edith is told numerous stories about him by various elderly people. The wickedest story, characteristically - Edith Templeton would write about her family throughout her career - is told to her by her grandmother, a grande dame who's full of surprises, and so carefully does the writer anchor her tale in bygone manners that the anecdote is genuinely shocking, in a tittering sort of way. 

By the time I had reached the door in the garden wall, I had composed a good Tacitus sentence: "It is known that Count Sternborn, though he made three attempts, never succeeded inn getting married, be it because the Gods misguided him in the choice of his brides, or be it because his sense of honor made him heedless of the other duties he owed to life."

 

June 12, 2006

Sunday in the Kitchen

Last night, M le Neveu came for dinner by himself. (Ms NOLA is still in Paris, making eggplant soup for her hostess.) I was going to fry some chicken and roast sweet potatoes in the way that he's very fond of, and of course I baked him a chocolate cake. But I poured the batter into pans that were too wide from the extremely light sour-cream layers. Too broad and insufficiently thick, one of the layers simply disintegrated when I tried to get it from the cooling rack onto the other layer. The thick ganache frosting widened the cracks instead of sealing them, pushing the layer apart. My desire to continue cooking evaporated, and we decided to go across the street for Mexican.

It seems that I have arrived at a point in my culinary career in which failure is truly unacceptable. How could I have failed to produce a good-looking cake? (It tastes great, but who cares about that. Cakes are about presentation. I don't know why I used to the wrong pans. It may have had something to do with cooking on Sunday, something I'm just not in the mood to do anymore. I cook on Monday. Did I mention that the cake and the frosting consume one entire bar of Scharfenburger chocolate? That's $10.49 right there.

Perhaps I ought to have stayed in the kitchen. I went out onto the balcony - it was a glorious day here in New York, if cool enough to warrant Kathleen's bundling her legs in a fleece blanket - and finished Martha McPhee's L'America. It left me fairly depressed, if in the exalted way that art has of being depressing. The heroine dies in the North Tower on 9/11, but her daughter marries the son of her great love, an Italian banker. That marriage happens weirdly in the future, 2017 or something. Beth (the heroine) and Cesare (the banker from Lombardy) meet on a Greek island when they are very young, and they fall terribly in love. It is the kind of love that causes the rest of the world to cease to exist. But of course the world does continue to exist, and, problematically, there are two worlds to contend with. Cesare and Beth are rooted to their native soil. Cesare cannot deviate from the course that has been plotted for him, and because that course doesn't include an American wife, he never seriously asks her to marry him. So she stays in New York and has a career in food. Beth's dying, although it has nothing to do with Cesare, seems tragic nonetheless, perhaps because it releases Beth from her undying, impossible love.

There are times when L'America seems headed for preciousness, and there are times when one wearies of Beth and Cesare simply because, like all great lovers, they have no sense of humor. But Ms McPhee's highly recursive prose evokes enough intimations of grand passion to assure that we'll forgive her and, what's far more important, believe in her characters. There are times when L'America is thrilling. Sometimes the lovers seem like champions of their very different cultures, meeting on the field of honor to wage a duel. The stylish propriety of Cesare's world, which fascinates Beth at first, when she's a high school exchange student, rebuts everything candid and casual about the unstructured lives of American teenagers.

As for the food writing, of which there's a great deal toward the end, I couldn't help feeling relieved that I've never had to work in a restaurant, either in the kitchen or in the front of house. I don't know how people do it, really; the idea of all that physical work terrifies me. I wouldn't make it through a day. If something didn't come out just right, I'd quit. I'd want to, anyway.

At the same time, I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Ms McPhee's restaurant writing did not quite rise to the level of "The Generator," the chapter in Mr Franzen's novel in which Denise Lambert - also bankrolled by a wealthy retriever type - sets up and then loses a top-tier restaurant in Philaldelphia, briefly bumping her head against the clouds of celebrity. Denise is also the one Lambert family member who suffers a maddening love, another link to Beth. I would have to say that Denise is the more fully realized character. But Ms McPhee's tale of Beth and Cesare reads like the rich restatement of an ancient myth.

Black Mischief: VII - VIII

The following is the final installment of "A Reading of Black Mischief" that I've been posting at Good For You, a site that I have decided to close. Setting it up seemed like a good idea at the time, but upon reflection it makes no sense to isolate what I have to say about classic works (novels, films, operas, and so forth). Everything winds up at Portico eventually, and, indeed, that is where you will find all of the entries generated by this reading of Waugh's great novel. You'll find them, moreover, in order, not blogwards.

Toward the end of June, I'll begin a group reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Anyone can participate; I'll announce the procedure when I set a date. Stay tuned.

With a great deal up in the air, Waugh begins the last substantial chapter on a sustained note of calm. First there is Sir Samson's displeasure at the overruning of the Legation by "the entire English population of Debra-Dowa." He overhears his uninvited guests describing the preceding days' riots and retires to the Chancery, where all the young aides are playing "cut-throat bridge." Presently the Envoy asks William to don a uniform and take his place at the coronation of Achon, which has just been announced. The scene shifts to the Nestorian cathedral, and the spectacle is described with the faintest mockery - mockery so faint, in fact, that it constitutes a kindness. It is clear that Waugh is of a divided mind when it comes to this elaborate but rather pagan ceremony. He can't help sneering, but he reminds himself to be reverent. The result is the book's first pathetic moment, as the formerly incarcerated Emperor is led to the throne.

Continue reading about Black Mischief at Portico.

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.

Fiction

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 08, 2006

Valerie Martin's The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories

Short-story collections don't satisfy, as a rule, the cravings that I have for fiction. They're not roomy enough, and they count too heavily upon my ability to fill in, from a few hints, the social background. I don't want to fill in the background; I want to hear what a writer has to tell me about it. Every now and then, someone makes a success of stringing short stories together into something very like a novel, but the achievement is rare and, truth be told, fleeting. It's not uncommon for the chapters in a novel that I like to run longer than any short story. Let's face it: I'm not laconic by nature.

Valerie Martin's new collection, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories, took me by surprise. What they lack in wallpaper and layering they make up for with French-roast intelligence. From the opening story, "His Blue Period":

He never mentions, perhaps because he doesn't know, a detail I find most salient, which is that his painting actually was better then than it is now. Like so many famous artists, these days Anspach does an excellent imitation of Anspach. He's in control, nothing slips by him, he has spent the last twenty years attending to Anspach's painting, and he has no desire ever to attend to anything else. But when he was young, when he was with Maria, no one, including Anspach, had any idea what an Anspach was.

All the stories here are involve artists of one kind or another, and much of the excitement comes from feeling that one has wandered into a very intelligent - but not bitchy or "personal" - conversation on art and artists. The fame and the value of the work (often quite different things) are always being weighed against the worth of the artist, and the scale is never balanced.

The worth of the artist is, of course, expressed in terms of love. Or is it affection, loving kindness? Consider the musing of the young woman who narrates "Beethoven."  

Continue reading about The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories at Portico.

June 05, 2006

Domestic Adventure

That I liked one of the Domestic Adventure books that I mentioned last Tuesday much better than the other is not really of interest. I could try to explain why Stephen Clarke's A Year in the Merde tickled me, while John Grogan's Marley and Me: didn't (it did make me cry, though), but in essence I would just be talking about myself, not the books. Just.

What is "Domestic Adventure," you ask? The titles give some clues. Both tell stories that are purportedly encounters with something alien. In keeping with the promise of the Adventure genre, the adventurers present self-portraits that have been truncated to permit the peaceful co-existence of characteristics not often found in harmony in human nature. Sensitivity and "manliness," for example. (Each writer is politely but insistently heterosexual.) Both men are evidently mature and responsible adults, but they never miss a chance to let their inner adolescent make an appearance. The candor of true autobiography is deftly avoided, and neither guy is on the couch. Or, if he is, his feet are on the coffee table. That is at any rate what he wants you to believe. In fact, both men are professional writers, more clever and probably more complicated than their literary stand-ins.

In A Year in the Merde, the writer recounts his abbreviated year of ...

Continue reading about Domestic Adventure at Portico.

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?

Fiction

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 29, 2006

Julia Lambert in and out of the Theatre

JuliaBen.JPG

Few if any movies have besotted me quite so thoroughly as Being Julia. I didn't see the film when it was in the theatres, but came across it on HBO during a very idle moment. I watched it again and then bought it. And then the DVD spent a week in the kitchen TV. When the movie ended, I would often as not start it over again. I couldn't get enough of Annette Bening's scenery-chewing performance. Never has anyone seemed more alive on film than she does in the role of leading London actress Julia Lambert.

It was inevitable, therefore, that I would read the novel from which it's adapted, provided that I could ...

Continue reading about Theatre and Being Julia at Portico.

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 15, 2006

The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace

If you liked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and cannot wait for his next novel to appear, allow me to I recommend The Housekeeper, by Melanie Wallace. Both books demonstrate the power of pitch-perfect prose to make bleak stories gripping. The sense of doom that hangs over Cold Mountain comes, of course, from the Civil War; in The Housekeeper, it is a byproduct, as it were, of poverty and isolation. The surest way to repel you would be to outline Ms Wallace's story, or even to sketch its point of departure. That is something that only she can do, and she has done it with extraordinary skill. Here's something from the dust jacket:

With an unforgettable case of characters and gorgeous, piercing prose, The Housekeeper is at once a poetic meditation on landscape and a page-turning thriller.

True statements, I can attest.

Continue reading about The Housekeeper at Portico.

May 14, 2006

"The Best American Novel..."

So, on the strength of fifteen votes, from a pool of 124, Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, is "officially" the best American novel of the past quarter century.

If the voters had been choosing the best writer of the past quarter century, Philip Roth would have won easily.

Boy, do I live in another country. The Corrections got one vote. Jane Smiley, so far as I know, didn't get any votes. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping got a vote - is Gilead, a better book, too new to be chosen? It would seem so. Most of the books that led the runners-up list have been around for a while, gathering the dust of immortality. Quite a few were actually published over a quarter century ago, but thanks to repackaging were eligible.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, sent a simple request to "a couple of hundred prominent writers," of whom 124 replied. Take my word for it: the class windbags. And don't miss A O Scott's pious explication of the poll and its results. I frankly don't know how they had the cheek to crown a fifteen-vote favorite "the best."

I myself have not read Beloved. Kathleen has, however - and she says she can't remember a thing about it except that "somebody's dead."

Did I mention that Underworld, Don de Lillo's opus pompossimus, was the first runner-up, followed by Cormac McCarthy's grisly (must-read) Blood Meridian and the four Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike. Gawd, Underworld was a bore.

I'm not complaining. To ask for "the best American novel" is to invoke a fog of aspirational sentimentality. The results would probably be just as bogus in any culture. Asking for a desert island favorite (the standard British approach) would undoubtedly have yielded a more illustrative list. Who'd want to spend time in solitary with Blood Meridian? I, of course, would spend it committing The Corrections to memory. Or maybe Horse Heaven.

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 13, 2006

Book List

Here's a list of book titles that I found at Patricia Storms's Booklust. And here's the code: books that I've read, books on my shelves, books that I might read, and books that I won't read. Finally, (books that I don't know anything about).

The DaVinci Code. It was awful, and I got rid of it.

The Catcher in the Rye. But I haven't read this as an adult.

To Kill A Mockingbird. But not as an adult.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Never.

The Great Gatsby. The perfect novella.

(The Time Traveler's Wife).

His Dark Materials. I'm much too old.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Ditto. 

The Life of Pi. Kathleen loved it.

Animal Farm. I doubt that I'll read this, but not enough to strike it out.

Catch 22. Ditto. There was something about the way guys in high school talked about this book that put me off it.

The Hobbit. I did read the trilogy, at much the same time that I discovered Wagner. I kept the Wagner and lost the Tolkien.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A lovely book, with a desperately exciting adventure at the end.

Lord of the Flies. I don't think I've read this, but I may be wrong.

Pride and Prejudice. This will never be my favorite Austen, but I do love it.

1984. The consensus seems to be that Huxley was right, not Orwell. But I don't think I'd read Brave New World either.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Who organized this list?

One Hundred Years of Solitude. I hate magic realism.

Memoirs of a Geisha. A good read. But for the real experience, try to catch Kenji Mizoguchi's Gion Bayashi (A Geisha).

The Kite Runner. I liked this more than I thought I would.

The Lovely Bones. The negative reviews that this bit of bogusness received in respectable periodicals got to be quite funny.

Slaughterhouse 5. See Catch 22.

The Secret History. I've read this twice. It's super.

Wuthering Heights. I had to read this for school. I found it rather dull.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'm probably too old for this, too.

Middlesex. I read the early part of this book in a magazine.

Cloud Atlas. My radar says, "Don't," but it's not shrieking.

Jane Eyre. Unlikely but possible.

Atonement. And everything else by Ian McEwan.

(The Shadow of the Wind).

The Old Man and the Sea. This is bad Hemingway. Or so I'm told.

The Handmaid's Tale. I am committed to doing everything that I can to keep what I understand the scenario of this book to be from being realized. I don't need its details clunking around in my head.

The Bell Jar. Probably not, but maybe.

Dune. I love David Lynch's film, though. Herbert's prose style makes me giggle. For about thirty seconds.

(Sula).

Cold Mountain. This was a good, old-fashioned gripper.

(The Alchemist).

White Teeth. The first, and probably the last, thing that I read by Zadie Smith was On Beauty. It was full of powerful scenes and affecting passages, but it completely failed to hang together as a novel.

The House of Mirth. Of course! Where's Henry James?

And, just for the hell of it, I'm going to add a fortieth title: The Corrections.

That enables me to claim a quarter of the titles. Which sounds just about right for a non-professional reader. My being me, there are more books that I won't read than books that I have read, and only a few tempters. (I don't believe that the Tolkien and Rowling books belong on a list like this, by the way.) I suppose I ought to print this up and nail it to the wall. 

April 10, 2006

My Life in France

Like most people, I became acquainted with Julia Child on WGBH's groundbreaking program, The French Chef. I was already interested in cooking, an activity that, because I was not a girl, was forbidden to me. But for me cooking meant baking, the branch of culinary art that most requires the attentiveness to quantity and texture that I had already developed by playing with my chemistry set in the basement. I was fascinated by white bread. Where did the holes come from? How did pasty dough become airy crumb? In any case, I wasn't about to be entertaining friends at a dinner party any time soon, so what struck me most about Julia Child was what most impressed all non-cooks who found themselves riveted by The French Chef: the bizarre harmony of Child's robust modulation, a plummy accent not much heard in the Sixties,* and the fact that she resembled no one's idea of a television housewife. Without appearing to be clumsy, exactly, she did not perform with the poised, balletic grace of other broadcast cooks, who knew how punctuate their maneuvers with fetching smiles directed at the camera. She didn't perform at all. Her unselfconsciousness on television was, and remains, startling.

Maybe that was how she became a media star in the first place. She did not even own a television set when she was asked to appear on a books program...

Continue reading about the My Life in France at Portico.

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 03, 2006

Mission To America

Last October, when it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, I declared that I'd read Walter Kirn's Mission to America "no matter what Paul Gray's review made of it."

Then I forgot all about it. What reminded me was Mr Kirn's priceless review of Harvey C Mansfield's Manliness.

I'm not entirely sure that I actually read Paul Gray's review of Mission To America. The reason for my enthusiasm was Up In The Air, Mr Kirn's previous novel. In that book, a road warrior flies about the American West, desperate to close a deal while clocking up the miles. Ryan M Bingham is a character whom I'd have called snarky if I'd been familiar with the word at the time; he wants me to like him without caring much about whether he's really likeable. That puts him at a huge distance from Mason Plato LaVerle, the hero of Mission to America. Mason is sweet. He's genuinely well-intentioned, and he subscribes to much of the wisdom of the remote cult in which he was brought up. He wants life to be real, and he doesn't want to get stuck doing soulless things.

Mason comes from Bluff, Montana, a secluded community run by women who encourage their men to undertake demanding physical labor while they, the women, do the thinking. (The library, a ramshackle collection of books, is for "dandies" - homosexuals.) The wisdom of this arrangement might very well be what the novel sets out to establish. Mr Kirn knows, however, how to start on a ...

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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 28, 2006

All Souls

When did the name of Cees Nooteboom first catch my eye? I'm pretty sure that I took it to be the name of a woman, but that by the time I bought one of Mr Nooteboom's books, I knew better. That was in Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and the book was Allerzielen, or All Souls Day. Buying the novel in its original text was a characteristic act of folly. I know a bit of Nederlands, but not enough even to attempt a literary novel of such richness. But I was thinking of tackling the language seriously, which I did until I fell ill. When I got better, I was already spending Tuesday afternoons with my French prof; Nederlands was set aside. I still have Allerzielen, though.

And I have All Souls Day as well - Susan Massotty's translation. It's no longer in print, but I found a copy somewhere. When it arrived, it went into the gross fiction pile, and there it stayed for I don't know how long. I ought to read that, my superego whispered. You know what that leads to: prolonged procrastination. All Souls Day is a serious novel by an unknown writer who's not, at the moment, a topos of buzz.

Then my French kicked in. I don't mean the language, I mean the sérieux. All Souls Day went into the bedside fiction pile. I finally opened it up because it was the book at the bottom, and getting it out of the way would diminish the clutter.

I say all of this because it's a very typical instance of the skirmishes that aspiration and laziness wage for my attention.

Most concisely, All Souls Day is about the end of a long mourning. Arthur Daane, a cameraman who occasionally produces his own documentaries, lost his wife, Roelfje, and his son, Thomas, ten years ago, when their airliner crashed in Spain. Arthur knows how to keep busy, but his busyness has become a way of not moving on. We find Arthur on the streets of Berlin on a winter afternoon. Arthur's Berlin circle of friends includes Viktor, a sculptor who also hails from the Netherlands; Arno, a German philosopher; and Zenobia, Arno's Russian sister-in-law. Together with the proprietors of their two favorite restaurants, these people comprise Arthur's family. He has an apartment in Amsterdam, and a woman friend, Erna, who barrages him with advice, but Arthur has become "a traveler without baggage." Whether working on an exotic project or loafing around a favorite city, Arthur does not have a home. And he is in mourning.

The quality of this mourning is not probed; it is clearly something that Arthur tries not to bump up against, and he does not examine it. His wife and daughter seem, from time to time, to be in the same room, but they're not happy, because they can't get older. I hesitate to say that much, because this is by no means a work of magic realism or high-toned science fiction. All Souls Day is very firmly planted on the geography of Berlin. And Berlin doesn't need any special effects to serve as the matrix for the novels rich meditations. The scar left by the wall, the ruins of the Gedächtsniskirche, the brutalist cement housing projects in the East, these are all explored for what they can tell us about mortality.

Surely no other century had seen as much murder, slaughter, and genocide as this one. It was common knowledge; so there was no point in bringing it up. Perhaps the worst part was not just the killing itself - the attacks, the executions, the rapes and beheadings, the slaughter of tens of thousands of people - but the amnesia that set in almost immediately afterward, business as usual, as if it were a drop in the bucket to a world population of six billion, as if - and this fascinated him even more - humanity wasn't interested in individual names, only in the blind survival of the species. The woman who happened to be passing by when the bomb exploded in Madrid, the seven Trappist monks whose throats were cut in Algiers, the twenty boys gunned down before their parents' eyes in Colombia, the entire trainful of commuters hacked to death with machetes in a five-minute burst of orgiastic fury, the two hundred passengers on the plane that exploded above the sea, the two, three, or six thousand men and boys killed in Srebenica, the hundreds of thousands of women and children slain in Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Angola. For one moment, a day, a week, they were front-page news, for several seconds they flowed through cables in every part of the globe, and then it began, the black, delete-button darkness of oblivion that from now on would only get worse. The dead would no longer have names. They would have been erased in the emptiness of evil, each in the separate moment of his or her horrible death.

The range of Arthur's thinking is but one of the elements that mark All Souls Day as a European novel. Its focus outward on the world, and not inward on the self, is another. An untutored reader might dismiss them as "intellectual" or even "idealistic," but to do so is to miss the warmth and humanity of Arthur's internal monologue. Warmth and humanity also characterize the restaurant conversations with his friends. Arthur does not say much; guarding against stabs of loss, he refrains from launching tangents or offering comprehensive explanations. On the rare occasions when he does speak at length, we're simply told that he spoke; we already know what he has to say. All of this comports further with Arthur's profession, which in turn drags him into the romantic encounter that gradually comes to support the narrative trajectory. All Souls Day may feel rambling and even directionless at times during a first reading, but it is a beautifully composed Big European Novel.

The romance is unromantic in ways that we have come to appreciate in European films. There is a much deeper respect for patches of resistance, and there is no underestimation of how difficult it is to reconcile desire with difficult personal history. The relationship that Arthur develops with a woman whom he runs up against in a café, improbably names Elik Oranje, starts out on a difficult note and only gets more difficult. It's a relationship between two hurt and wary people who, though each becomes quickly obsessed with the other, react in opposite ways to obsession. When American lovers behave like this, it's because they're empty and inexperienced, not the case with Arthur and Elik. The romance is "resolved" on the novel's very last page.

This is not a novel that can be discussed after a first read. I can recommend it, but I can't assess the details - and perhaps that's as it should be. All Souls Day is a novel that needs to be read a second time. I'm out on a very windy limb when I ask: Will I ever?

March 27, 2006

Ishiguro Podcast

At The Guardian, John Mullan interviews Kazuo Ishiguro on the subject of Never Let Me Go. Mr Ishiguro says everything that I was trying to say last year, but much more clearly, and, obviously, with greater authority.

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 20, 2006

Bait and Switch

In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich at least got some jobs. They were lousy, no-collar jobs that didn't quite support her. She lived on the margin of poverty and reported a lot of her co-workers' very serious headaches. The grit was bearable partly because of her humor, but also because you knew that the author was going to experience a happy ending - you were holding proof, in the form of a printed book, in your hand. This good feeling is absent from Ms Ehrenreich's account of trying to get a better, white-collar job, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, because she never gets a job to begin with. The only people she meets are sadly laid-off people and the hucksters who "teach" them how to find their way back to work. The futility noted in the subtitle suffuses the entire book. There is still plenty of mordant humor. But there is also plenty of despair.

It's not easy to break into a line of white-collar work without some serious educational channeling. Ms Ehrenreich, an investigative reporter, figures that she can find something in reporting's evil twin, publicity. She legally resumes her maiden name and cobbles together a plausible resume. She devises a schedule, which ends every afternoon with a trip to the gym,

as recommended by all coaches and advice-giving web sites. I would work out anyway, but it's nitce to have this ratified as a legitimate job-search activity. In fact, I find it expanding to fill the time available - from forty-five minutes to more than an hour a day. I may never find a job, but I will, in a few more weeks, be in a position to wrestle and job competitors to the ground. On the downside, I have no clue as to how to use the gym as a networking opportunity. With whom should I network? The obviously unemployed fellow who circles the indoor track for at least an hour a day? The anorexic gal whose inexplicable utterances on the Stairmaster are not, as I first hoped, attempts to communicate but an accompaniment to the songs on her iPod? No matter how many inviting smiles I cast around the place, my conversations never seem to get beyond "Do you mind if I work in?" and "Whoops, I guess that's your towel."

As this passage suggests, the business of looking for a job involves a lot of pretense - and very active pretense at that. I'm not talking about the bland politeness with which I navigate formal social settings. I'm talking about always appearing to upbeat and interested in other people. For a happy few, such behavior comes ...

Continue reading about Bait and Switch at Portico.

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 16, 2006

On and Off the Avenue

Who was the last person to write an "On and Off the Avenue" column for The New Yorker? My guess would be Kennedy Fraser, but I haven't been playing close attention and I'm much too lazy to check The Complete New Yorker. "On and Off the Avenue" has always been a somewhat whimsical feature, but Patricia Marx turns up the humor setting in her contribution to the form. (It should be noted that Ms Marx teaches "comedy writing" at NYU.) The avenues in question are not our north-south axes named with numbers but the labyrinthine roadways of Los Angeles. I couldn't care less about this sort of fashion - the stylish women of Los Angeles strike me as nothing less than demented (they're certainly not attractive). But Ms Marx makes a must of her brief.

Near the entrance to the tiny boutique Luxe de Ville (2157 West Sunset Boulevard) stands a mannequin of a young boy who seems cheerful, considering that he's missing an arm. He is naked save for a jockey cap, a navy leather bikini with a big brass brooch, and strands of beads around his neck. The boy fits right in with the merchandise, a curious mixture of old and new: green plaid men's slacks from the forties; an I Magnin black velvet hat with a marine-blue feather, circa 1945; a new moss-green dress that looks so complicated I can't imagine how one would put it on (a label inside says, "Sometimes catastrophes become trophies"). It's easy to imagine the cheerful boy mannequin wearing any of these pieces. But what about me?

Sadly for nonsubscribers, the piece is not online.

How long has The New Yorker been running "World Beat," an out-of-town "Goings On About Town"?

March 14, 2006

Mom's Cancer

MomsCancer.jpg

At his blog, also called Mom's Cancer, writer and cartoonist Brian Fries complains,

I hate stories that makes cartooning sound easy. It's too disrespectful to an artform I love and the professionals who work hard to make a living at it. Everybody already thinks it's easy, and a few famous examples of everyday folks who sent their doodles to a newspaper syndicate and hit the million-dollar jackpot only reinforce that idea. I would hate to contribute to that misperception.

Why would anybody think that cartooning is easy? The drawings in Mom's Cancer, a strip that began circulating on the Internet while Mr Fies's mother was undergoing treatment, have a casual, accessible feel, but only a moron would think that they'd been dashed off. Mr Fies says that he has been drawing cartoons for thirty years (he's in his middle forties), and it shows in every panel. That's what makes Mom's Cancer so accessible. The more time you spend with the book, the more sophisticated it becomes, but this sophistication is not what hits you on the first run-through. The sophistication, in fact, consists largely in the way Mr Fies's adroitly stands to one side while his story charges on.

And let's not overlook the fact that he hooks you immediately, vaporizing any resistance that you might have had to reading about somebody's bout with a mortal illness.

Mom's Cancer is a masterpiece of tact. Often frightening, it is never unpleasant, and the gross weariness of radiation and chemotherapy, while hinted at, never grips the narrative. For Mom, it's the most serious of battles. For you, it's a small, almost sinfully entertaining account of one very particular family's experience of Major Medicine. You will either smile (between gasps) because you've been there yourself, or you will learn something about a treatment that used to kill patients before their cancer could do so. Now it just wrecks their bodies while it clears out the tumors. "It takes us a while to figure out that oncology is an improvisational art," writes Mr Fies.

The sheer artistry of Mom's Cancer is breathtaking.

March 13, 2006

Eat the Document

Preposterously, I can't begin to write about Dana Spiotta's powerful novel without knowing how old she is. She'd have to be my age, or at least well over fifty, to have been around in the early Seventies, when the novel's principal characters engage in radical violence that forces them to go underground. But she doesn't look that old, and one would have to ask where she has been all this time. Her first novel, Lightning Field, appeared in 2001 (I look forward to reading it soon). According to her site, she runs a restaurant with her husband in the ground floor of their home, somewhere upstate. She's almost as mysterious as her ecoterrorists.

Perhaps I ought to begin by saying that I read Eat the Document in one day. I was pulled along by the brilliantly-crafted story lines even as I was fascinated by the brilliant craft. I was impressed by the author's ability to cue readers to significant connections before she spells them out; it's very flattering to the reader. The writing, for the most part, is hushed, tuned to remote disturbances. This is the flatness of the slab of cliff. The suspense is moral: Eat the Document is harrowing, haunted by an act of violence that is not described until the end of the novel is within view. On top of everything else, there is the ammonia-stab of a very confused time.

The novel opens in a motel room in 1972. Mary is on the run; the run, for her, has just started. As if it were too bright to look back upon, the event from which she is running ...

Continue reading about Eat the Document at Portico.

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 09, 2006

Kathryn Davis's Versailles

All of a sudden, I had to read something by Kathryn Davis. Everyone seemed to be saying that she's an interesting writer, with a whiff of the experimental. I don't care for more than a whiff of experiment, at least of the visible, conscious kind, so I played it safe. I got a copy of Versailles. And I read it with surprised pleasure. Surprised by Ms Davis's ability to make Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, interesting and convincing at the same time. It is difficult to imagine Marie-Antoinette taking the trouble to write much of anything beyond letters to her mother, but the reminiscences of her soul, spoken from beyond the guillotine, are never implausible.

Marie-Antoinette is a bit of a black hole: she sucks up narrative. To use Harold Bloom's favorite word, she is over-determined. There are so many explanations of her downfall, first as an adored queen and later as a human being. Her being Austrian was a problem; the Austrians were traditional enemies of France. Her marriage to the future Louis XVI was in fact planned in a pro-Austrian treaty cobbled together at the instigation of the savvy but politically untutored Mme de Pompadour, at about the time Marie-Antoinette was born. There is no question that Marie-Antoinette's wardrobe was a problem. Supplied by the ingenious Rose Bertin, the queen seemed to have no sense of limits: she should be well-dressed - expensively-dressed - at all times. Well-dressed, however, did not mean well-behaved; Marie-Antoinette hated the rituals of court life, and preferred to retreat to smaller palaces out of public (that is, aristocratic and official) view. Almost everybody hated the rituals of court life, but it was unwise of Marie-Antoinette to think that she could dispense with them. I will come back to this.

Having nothing to do with the character of the queen, no matter how much she spent on her wardrobe, there was the bankruptcy of France. This had been coming for a long time, at least since the end of the Seven Years' War (our "French and Indian"). Helping the new American republic repulse the British tyrant ...<.p>

Continue reading about Versailles at Portico.

March 07, 2006

Rattled

In the 26 February issue of the New York Times Book Review, Ann Hodgman wound up her review of Debra Galant's exurban satire, Rattled, on a negative note.

But the novel's plotting and perceptive details are generally stronger than its characterization. Heather, especially, seems to consist of nothing but ruthless ambition punctuated by occasional, unconvincing jabs of conscience.

I reprint that because I completely disagree. Heather Peters, the major character, is the carefully-drawn figure of a woman who has lost her way in the world. Having grown up in nondescript inaffluence, and having been wounded to the core when a high-school acquaintance laughed at the plastic seatcovers on her mother's furniture, Heather has married an ambitious lawyer who will allow her to live in a world of good taste. Like all strivers, Heather thinks more about status markers than is healthy, and she has, at the beginning of the novel, allowed status anxiety to run her life. Ms Galant, a journalist, tosses Heather into a media maelstrom from which she emerges chastened but with a restored sense of proportion. I laughed as Heather kept getting herself into hotter water, but I didn't want her to be burned.

Rattled is put together with nothing less than the magnificent engineering of an entertainment by Carl Hiaasen. The story sails along far too briskly to creak, relayed by a team of interesting if not always savory folks. At the heart of the enterprise is a housing development that upsets the ecology and exposes residents to grievous bodily harm - in this case, from crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. Compounding the exurban absurdity is the social absurdity of conferring "endangered" status upon a deadly reptile with few friends in creation. If Ms Galant doesn't tell us anything new about environmentalists or builders, natives or arrivistes, that's because these are destinies that actual people inhabit more or less well. Agnes Sebastian, for example, is not first and foremost a naturalist, even though she runs the local nature center and prefers the company of dumb beasts to that of human beings. She is a smart widow who, while not particularly organized, knows her way around the Internet. She emerges from the pages of Rattled as a real woman, at least as well realized as the characters in Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. Agnes, first and foremost, is Agnes; not a thumbnail, but someone you get to know over time.

In my case, to be sure, that wasn't much time. I swallowed the book more or less whole. It's a delight to read, studded with barely perceptible barbs such as the following crack, made about Heather: "All she asked was a fair advantage." Skim the book and you'll miss jewels like that. Ms Galant knows how to set up more extended fun as well.

The office of Pine Hills Elementary was like Hong Kong at lunch hour. Phones rang, children waited for mothers to bring forgotten sandwiches, teachers lined up to use the photocopier, secretaries put mailo in slots, deliverymen arrived with packages, sick kids waited for the nurse. But when Connor Peters walked in, a hush descended. The two secretaries exchanged glances. Mothers bringing in book reports or coming to pick up children with earaches stopped in their tracks. The silence was finally broken when a little girl with skinned knees pointed a pudgy index finger and said loudly to her mother, "That's the one!"

"Ssshh," her mother said.

The little girl meant, that's the one who runs around after girls on the playground and hugs them, who looks up their dresses when they go on the swings, who barges in front of people in the cafeteria line.

But the mothers and the secretaries recognized something different. Word had spread fast through the halls of Pine Hills Elementary, and by now everybody knew. This was the boy whose mother had been led away from Back-to-School Night in handcuffs.

So permit me to thank Ms Galant for taking the trouble to post a comment to my review of the Review. I enjoyed her witty and polished book, and I look forward to her next adventure.

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.

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February 25, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

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 20, 2006

The End of Emma

In Puerto Rico last week, I read Emma for the sixth time. It is more than ever a beloved book. This go-round, the horrors of Mrs Elton came even more to the fore, while Emma's cocksure marital schemes for Harriet Smith and Frank Churchill seemed less gratuitous stunts than unavoidable hurdles to her own understanding of connubial love. When I got home, I slid the Douglas McGrath's 1996 adaptation (can it really be ten years old!) onto the tray, and was instantly reminded of Monty Python's "Summarize Proust" sketch. How the movie dashed about in mad abbreviation! One performance stood forth as immortal, Juliet Stevenson's as "Mrs E," and I only wished she'd been given more lines. Lots more lines. Such as the speech in which Jane Austen makes clear that "explore" is not a verb that becomes a lady's vocabulary - a nicety that I'd missed in earlier readings. (It is a bit overwhelmed by repetitions of "barouche-landau.")

What most caught my attention in this reading was the extent of the material that follows the happy ending. Emma and Mr Knightley finally reach their romantic understanding in Chapter 49. That leaves six more chapters for tying things up, and I suppose that that's how I've read those chapters in the past. This tim ...

Continue reading about Emma at Portico.

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.

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

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.

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

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.

February 09, 2006

Girl Sleuth: Identity Crisis

No doubt some scholar has written a learned paper analyzing the significance of motherlessness in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series. Isn't it curious that, in both cases, the loss of a mother in early childhood makes the heroes of these books not only more self reliant than most youngsters but also closer to their admiring fathers? Whatever the "explanation," it doesn't lie in the biographies of the people who dreamed up and wrote the books. Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) was the youngest child in a large, comfortable family; his father had married his brother's widow and proceeded to have three children of his own. Stratemeyer's career as a writer of popular fiction took off without a hitch, and he soon had more work than he could handle. In 1903, he set up the Stratemeyer Syndicate. This formidable-sounding organization consisted simply of Stratemeyer himself, an administrative secretary, and a fluid stable of ghostwriters. The Syndicate sold series books - the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift - to publishers; the genius of the system was that the pseudonyms attached to each series were not attached to any particular writers. Stratemeyer concocted brief outlines for his books and paid $125 for each manuscript. Needless to say, the Syndicate held all the rights, and the ghostwriters were advised not to think of themselves as authors. They might say that they were "doing work for the Stratemeyer Syndicate," but no more. A self-assured and imposing man, Stratemeyer had little trouble maintaining his regime, and when he died rather suddenly of pneumonia, at the age of 67, he was a very prosperous man.

He was also someone who had not given much thought to succession. He had taken on no junior partners - no one to take his place. The Syndicate was inherited by his two grown daughters, Harriet and Edna. Harriet (1892-1982), a Wellesley graduate ('14), was the mother of four children, married to a childhood sweetheart. Edna, who hadn't gone to college, lived - take note - at home with her ailing mother. After quietly seeking a purchaser for the Syndicate, they did what they could to keep it going - moving, for example, its office from Madison Square to a building in East Orange, New Jersey, convenient to their homes - and were somewhat surprised to make a success of it. From the start, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took charge, but her sister did not fade into silent partnership until 1942, and together they rode out the Depression - which, it must be acknowledged, affected neither one materially. It would seem that the Stratemeyer girls were motivated more by filial piety and fiscal responsibility than by a real need for money when they stepped into their father's shoes. These were shoes, however, that not even Harriet would ever really fill.

At the time of his death, Edward Stratemeyer had just launched the Nancy Drew Mystery Story series, and earmarked the ghostwriting for one Mildred Augustine Wirt (1905-2002), a graduate of the University of Iowa's recently established school of journalism who lived in Toledo, where she worked at the Toledo Times and Blade. The daughter of a prosperous small-town doctor, Mildred was a champion swan-diver and avid journalist as an undergraduate at Iowa. Like Nancy, she graduated early from high school; unlike Nancy, she graduated early from college, too. She connected with the Syndicate by responding to one of its ads, and by 1929 had so impressed Stratemeyer that he handed her the "scenarios" of the first the Nancy Drew stories as soon as their publisher-to-be, Grosset and Dunlap, greenlighted the project. If you are an American woman, the chances are that you've read the first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock. Let it be said for the record that while the plot of the novel was conceived - formulaically, of course; what was new about Nancy Drew was Nancy herself - by Edward Stratemeyer, the book that you read was written by Mildred Augustine Wirt. "Carolyn Keene," the ostensible author, never existed.

What interested me about Girl Sleuth was not the reasons for Nancy's continued popularity among young readers, or the ways in which the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have been tweaked over the decades to jibe with the times. What interested me was the dissonance between the brisk allure of Nancy Drew, an attractive but not beautiful sixteen year-old with all the worldly independence of an Emma Woodhouse - and also with Emma's complete lack of plans for the long-term future - and the "moral clarity" of her solutions to the mysteries into which she was repeatedly drawn, on the one hand, and the complete muddle of credit and identity in which she was born anew in book after book. What would Nancy have made of The Mystery of the Ghostwritten Mysteries? Not much, I'm sure. You can argue that there never was a Carolyn Keene, but that's hardly more satisfactory than the only alternative, which is to claim that there were two Carolyn Keenes. Put very simply, Harriet and Edna lacked the business sense that had enabled their father to deal with writers. Although both were bright women, and notwithstanding Harriet's undergraduate experience as a reporter, they clearly lacked a nuts and bolts command of business. After Edna's withdrawal from active participation in the Syndicate's day-to-day, the sisters would bicker for the rest of the younger one's life over accountings. That Harriet did as well as she did testifies to rich native ability. But having been sheltered from commerce by their somewhat preening, upwardly mobile father stood the women in poor stead when it came to dealing with their talented and creative employees. As a result, "Carolyn Keene" was treated to two waves of obituary tribute, first in 1982 and again four years ago.

Because the relationship between Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and - as she eventually became - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was a muddle from the ground up, I am not going to attempt a summary here. It's enough to say that Harriet and Mildred were exceptional but very different women who were limited by the second-class opportunities with which the women of their time were presented. Harriet, allowed to follow her own lead, might have achieved something more remarkable and less embarrassing than the claim to be Carolyn Keene - a claim, that even though she could back up once she replaced Mildred with herself as the actual writer of the Nancy Drews, remains fundamentally bogus. As for Mildred, there could never have been any question of holding her back, but, equal rights advocate though she was, she retained an ingrown respect for employers and, one suspects, for strong men that prevented her from openly defying Harriet on the authorship issue until the question went to court in 1980 - and even then, Mildred was a witness, not a litigant.

Melanie Rehak's wonderful book has one of the happiest non-fiction endings that I've come across in a long time. Mildred Benson died with her boots on. On 29 May 2002, she handed in her column at the Toledo Blade, went home, went to the hospital, and died.

In the end, her past with the Stratemeyer Syndicate became a burden, but Mildred never forgot why she had started writing children's books in the first place. Her final column, posthumously published, was about her love of reading and her admiration of public libraries, the very institutions that had both provided her with the detail and atmosphere that made many of her books so magical and provided so many young readers the chance to read them.

Girl Sleuth is bigger than the sum of its parts.

January 30, 2006

Upon finishing The Origins of Totalitarianism

In general, I'm very pleased with the education that I received at the University of Notre Dame in the late Sixties. The version of the Great Books program that the faculty had devised suited me down to the ground, and in all my later reading, I have never felt that anything fundamental, at least in Western thought, was omitted. Upon reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, however, I can no longer claim such pleasant innocence. A book that had been in print for over fifteen years when I went to college, Totalitarianism is perhaps more important than ever, as the United States fumbles amidst reckless experiments and faces underestimated dangers in debt finance and fuel supply.

We are still too close to the twin dawns of the late eighteenth century - the industrial revolution and the inauguration of the nation-state - to understand how each effected the other. Nor, to follow the analogy to natural cycles, do we know where to put totalitarianism. (I'm inclined to regard it as an adolescent breakdown.) What we do know is that all three developments are related. It is possible that the nation-state might have eschewed totalitarianism, instead of steaming toward it, at least in Arendt's view, with deliberate speed, had there been none of the uprooting of the industrial revolution, filling the cities with superfluous people. I am only beginning to reassemble my grasp of modern European history from the rubble to which Arendt reduced it, but I do see that some sort of totalitarian episode was inevitable by the end of the old regime and the upsurge in scientific and technological expertise, both of which occurred in the late eighteenth century. Because I had not been properly grounded in modern European history, and also because I grew up in an exceptionalist America that has not suffered modern Europe's ongoing crisis of political legitimacy, I had a very hard time understanding Hannah Arendt until well into The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In the American view, the American and French revolutions put an end to monarchical tyranny and ushered in an era, perhaps more than just an era, of democracy. The proposition that democracy is a boon is one that Americans have a very hard time questioning, possibly because it means little more to them than the right to elect their own leaders. Democracy does indeed seem to be the least-bad political system, but its benefits are hardly unmixed with serious drawbacks. Local circumstances, however, worked to shroud these drawbacks in the United States. Take, for example, the very European problem of identifying the "demos" in the first place This was swept aside in the United States by degrading a slave class identifiable by skin color and facial features, compactly if erroneously recognized as a "race." Everyone who did not belong to this outcast group was included in the American demos. That's because the American "nation" (as distinct from the formal American state) consisted wholly of immigrants. Earlier-arriving classes invariably tried to lord it over late arrivals, but without long-term success. (It was perhaps vital for the persistence of racial bigotry that, from first settlement until quite recently, the American Southeast did not attract immigrants from outside the United States.) Regardless of personal prejudice, Irish-Americans are no better or worse than Italian-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, or any other kinds of American. Everybody is equally American. The struggle to extend this equality to the descendants of slaves persists, but it is under way.

From the moment of emancipation, however, the people of Europe had a hard time defining their nations - initially, races in the political and characterological sense, but soon enough racial in a voodoo biological sense - and the relation of those nations to states. France, the pre-eminent nation-state, declared that everybody living within French frontiers was...

Continue reading about The Origins of Totalitarianism at Portico.

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.

Nonfiction

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 26, 2006

A presidential volume worth purchasing?

Garry Wills's review of Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis is so favorable that I'm actually tempted to buy a presidential tome. The piece, "Jimmy Carter & the Culture of Death" (I'd have swapped the ampersand for a "vs"), appears in the New York Review of Books for February 9, 2006, and it is perhaps the strongest essay yet to contrast true religion with hateful religiosity. What few people knew at the time was that Jimmy Carter was awkward when he made religious statements because he didn't really believe that he ought to be making them, but felt badgered by the press. Mr Carter belongs to the Baptist World Alliance, an organization with which the more fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention has severed ties, the better, in Mr Wills's view, to promote its culture of death.

Mr Wills' deftly argues that the "pro-life," anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right maintains an anti-life agenda. When abortion is illegal, women desperate enough to get them not infrequently die, but that is only one part of a program that focuses on death. By refusing to limit the distribution of guns, this movement makes the United States a world hub of homicide; it is also among the top four sovereignties that inflict capital punishment. It insists on the United States' right to the first use of nuclear weapons; its myopic foreign policies reap a world-wide harvest of contempt for this country. Mr Wills winds up beautifully, with solid praise for the former president:

Carter is a patriot. He lists all the things that Americans have to be proud of. That is why he is so concerned that we are squandering our treasures, moral even more than economic. He has come to the defense of our national values, which he finds endangered. He proves that a devout Christian does not need to be a fundamentalist or fanatic, any more than a patriotic American has to be punitive, narrow, and self-righteous. He defends the separation of church and state because he sees with nuanced precision the interactions of faith, morality, politics and pragmatism. That is a combination that once was not rare, but is becoming more so. We need a voice from the not-so-distant past, and this quiet voice strikes just the right notes.

"Punitive, narrow and self-righteous" - a comprehensive description of patriarchs on the defense. I wish that Mr Wills had mentioned the word "patriarchy," but perhaps to do so would have raised an awkwardness. The "not-so-distant past" to which he hearkens was a settled patriarchy, with white men firmly in possession of all executive power,. Not only that, but their possession was not seriously questioned by most Americans. If you wanted a secure place in this patriarchy, you sucked up to it if you were a man and served it if you were a woman. Those who were drawn to alternatives could take their chances (in the big cities), but with no expectation of rescue in case of failure. Welfare wasn't wrong because it was expropriation - that just made it "unfair." What made it wrong was that it rescued folks who had opted out of the patriarchy. PS: It is understood, in a patriarchy, that those who haven't found a place within its structure have chosen not to, at least insofar as they haven't tried "hard enough."

Whether we are living through the patriarchy's last gasp, or whether natural and economic catastrophes will make the patriarchy look like the best chance for survival yet again, remains to be seen.

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.

Sold!

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.

Nonfiction

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 20, 2006

Just a thought

Late the other night, I was reading a John Cheever story, "The Wrysons," in which a suburban woman is afflicted with a recurring dream of nuclear holocaust. The dream winds up with a sort of yacht-club immolation scene in which boaters are drowned as they over-crowd the waters of refuge. In the dream, she weeps "to see this inhumanity as the world was ending."

Well, it isn't the world that is ending. The post-holocaust planet will go on spinning somehow, and opportunistic life-forms that have been waiting for the opportunity will flourish. (For example, a virus that replicates through the digitized memory of chatted vacuities such as "I'm standing outside your building, where are you?") Life will begin the long trek back to Descartes. This much we know. But I found myself wondering this evening about cultural extinctions in our own long past. One hundred fifty thousand years is no time at all on the geological scale, but it's plenty of time, I imagine, to scrub the traces of human artifact from the face of the earth. We think of the time between the moment of homo sapiens's unmistakable arrival (whenever that was) and the composition of the first granary account as a long, boring and unrecorded progression toward us. But what if we've done this already a few times? What if there were was a New Yorker seventy thousand years ago - and all record of it has been obliterated by natural processes, just as natural processes would clear Earth of our record in, say, fifty thousand years? What if, far from living in savannahs and bumbling our way toward speech, we've done this sophisticated cultural thing a few times already, but with such catastrophic results that We Don't Remember?

As you know, my mind doesn't drift toward science fiction. But I found myself plausibly wondering...

(But it's another Cheever story altogether that I urge you to read, a lovely tale called "The Duchess.")

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.

Nonfiction

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 13, 2006

Short Stories

As this Web log has greatly heightened my sense of responsibility as to what I read, even as it has severely cut into the time that's available for reading, it makes sense that I've "rediscovered" the short story. I am reading short stories now, instead of passing them over in favor of books. I do read books, too, but at a pace that by former standards is unprepossessing.

The latest stories have all appeared in the last three issues of The New Yorker.

December 26, 2005 & January 2, 2006 (International Fiction Issue):

¶ "The Word," by Vladimir Nabokov (translated by Dmitri Nabokov)

¶ "Last Evenings on Earth," by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)

¶ "Pregnancy Diary," by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)

¶ "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death," by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated by Deborah Treisman)

¶ "The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman," by Ismail Kadare (translated by Robert Elsie with the editorial contribution of David Bellos)

 

January 9, 2006

¶ "The Cryptozoologist," by Tony Earley

 

January 16, 2006

¶ "Three Days," by Samantha Hunt

Two of the foreign-language stories - those by Roberto Bolaño and Ismail Kadare - made the strongest impressions, which comes as no surprise. I have come to expect that American short fiction will impress me while I'm reading it but lose its appeal when I'm done; I never seem to know what the American writer has in mind. "Last Evenings" and "The Writer's Union" are in sharp contrast replete with intention. The first is a flashback narrative: it is 1975, and a Chilean youth and his father, political exiles living in Mexico City, set out for an aimless vacation to Acapulco. Dread and estrangement clot every paragraph, as do honor and liberty. The father and son are not close, are not even particularly alike; there is menace in their traveling as strangers. When they get to Acapulco, the father wants to party, to "get some action," but the son wants only to read.

There are things you can tell people and things you just can't, B thinks disconsolately. From this moment on, he knows the disaster is approaching.

In spite of which, the next forty-eight hours go by in a placid sort of daze, which B's father associates with what he calls "The Idea of the Holiday." (B can't tell whether his father is serious or pulling his leg.)

What things? What disaster? What keeps the mystification from being annoying is the story's sunstruck atmosphere. The final scene, set in a dive, where B's father plays cards with shady characters, is highly distilled pulp fiction, a panting read. (For an interesting article about Bolaño, who died two years ago, click here.)

"The Albanian Writer's Union as Mirrored by a Woman" promises, for most of its length, to be a coming-of-age story, in which the narrator, recalling his early days as a writer in locked-down Albania, tells of his desire to make contact with the city's only prostitute, the beautiful Marguerite. The narrator learns about her after seeing her for the first time.

Despite what I'd imagined, she was in her mid-thirties, and the light summer dress she was wearing made her look even younger. She had a pale complexion and chestnut-brown hair that fell in loose curls to the nape of her neck, and she didn't look the least bit vulgar. A sort of Anna Karenina, but without Vronsky or the screech of carriage wheels - in place of which she had assumed the fate of a fallen woman in a Communist country in the Balkans in the sixties.

As we returned to the Writers' Union, I listened attentively to what my colleague had to say about her. She was the classiest prostitute in all of Tirana, and apparently the only one of her kind. It was amazing that she was still here in Albania. Her clients were a select group of gentlemen who learned of her by word of mouth. She used the forbidden form of address, "Sir," and let them stay all night. At three in the morning, her mother would serve coffee, and the client would slip payment, a thousand leks, discreetly under Marguerite's pillow.

Rarely had I listened to the details of a story with such fascination.

It was only later, thinking the story over, that I realized that at no point does the narrator ever have proof that Marguerite is a prostitute, or even that she is named "Marguerite," and that is very much part of the tale. Marguerite is simply the dream of an open, Western society, in which old-fashioned gentility is not proscribed and puritans do not make the laws. Curiously, Marguerite's significance only intensifies when troubles within the Albanian Writers Union displace her from the page. The narrator is rusticated - "sent on rotation" - to a provincial backwater. When he returns he learns that something has happened to Marguerite, and it is in this way that she mirrors the Writer's Union. This is a coming-of-age story without the coming-of-age. (Mr Kadare won the first Man Booker International Prize last summer.)

So much for the stories that really appealed, or, rather, that appealed without letting anything get in the way. Tony Earley's "The Cryptozoologist" is a lovely story, for the most part, but it was badly dented, for me, by the interposition of a "bigfoot" or "skunk ape" figure that made delphic quasi-appearances at two points in the tale. There is also an abortion-clinic bomber, who may or may not be alive in the hills. Neither is necessary to the story, and I could have done without the cryptozoon altogether.

At heart, "The Cryptozoologist" is a beautiful story about a long and rocky marriage. Fieldin Kohler was forty-three when he married one of his art students, twenty year-old Rose. He resigned his teaching post before he could be fired and took Rose deep into western North Carolina, where they settled in a hollow "as close as one could get to the end of the earth and still have access to a grocery store." That's a magnificent phrase. The following paragraph explains, in three brisk sentences, why the young Rose was drawn to Fieldin.

Rose's father had been an Air Force intelligence officer who came home at night prohibited by federal law from talking about what he had done during the day. Her mother was a perfectly coifed and made-up alcoholic with even more stringent standards of secrecy. Fieldin had been the first adult who ever actually told Rose anything.

At the beginning of the story, twenty-five years later, Fieldin is dying of lung cancer. Gazing out from her back porch, Rose fancies she sees a strange figure. It might be a skunk ape; it might be the bomber. When she goes inside, Fieldin has died, and Rose concludes that the creature was a Charon-figure, a ferrier of souls into the next world. This figure will reappear at the end, with results that you might expect. Whisking Rose off to "the other side," however, spares Rose the full burden of living with the proof of her mistake.

This mistake is about Fieldin's paintings, which were never popular and which never sold - while Rose, herself, became an established, if "sentimental," artist who actually paid the bills. Fieldin's theme was the Trail of Tears - the banishment of southeastern Native Americans to Oklahoma. This despite his inability to get along with any living Native Americans or any public support. Fieldin was a handful, impractical, temperamental, and something of a mountebank, and one of the reasons why Rose becomes a "cryptozoologist" after his death because it distracts her from acrimonious recollections.

Studying these reports gave Rose something to think about besides Fieldin, at whom she unexpectedly found herself violently angry. Late at night - when she just wanted to kill Fieldin, and was stymied by the fact that he was already dead - she gratefully followed the CSA...

("CSA" stands for "Cryptozoological Study Association," but it's hard not to believe that Mr Earley intentionally worked out organizational name with resonant initials.) Near the end of the story, Rose pays a visit to her recently-widowed neighbor, Plutina Shires. The Shires are country people, utterly unsophisticated, and Mr Earley carefully presents them as people who would not be expected to "get" a modernist painting, even if they did dutifully hang one over their sofa when Fieldin gave them one of his Indian pictures. But the visit proves that it was Rose, and not Plutina, who failed to understand Fieldin's art. This grand surprise reverses all of the story's polarities, but the thrill is neutralized by the far more spurious excitement of the skunk ape's lurking in the bushes.

This week, The New Yorker published Samantha Hunt's "Three Days." I found it wearisome from beginning to end. Beatrice, a thirty year-old woman goes home for Thanksgiving over a year after leaving the house upon her father's death, and endures an unsatisfying repast with her mother and her younger brother, who will never leave home. "Home" is what's left of a farm that Beatrice's parents took up, whimsically, before she was born; what was countryside at the time has been for the most part paved over and built upon. Beatrice grew up loving her father and not loving her mother. We don't need to know anything about her looks to suspect why she's not married. The writing is intense, if not quite clear.

Beatrice thinks, If I sit in the living room with my mother watching a movie, I will explode and all that will spill out, all that I will have left inside will be a dark-green syrup of boredom that my mother will have to sponge off the floor with some Fantastik and a towel.

The forestory concerns a Wal-Mart security guard, a construction site, and a horse on which Beatrice and her brother, stoned, decide to take a ride after Thanksgiving dinner. It pains me to read of such emptiness as I found here.

Another rather empty story, Yoko Ogawa's "Pregnancy Diary," offered the distraction of kinkiness - I think. My problem with contemporary Japanese fiction in general and with the writing of Haruki Murakami in particular is cultural: I have trouble making do without the markers that older writers, such as Junichiro Tanizaki, implanted to distinguish behavior that might seem strange to Westerners from behavior than even the Japanese would find odd. This makes it very hard to judge the moral atmosphere. In "Pregnancy Diary," a woman poisons her sister's fetus with jam made from imported grapefruit. How weird is this? No motive is given; the project itself is never openly declared. The poisoner might, moreover, be doing her sister a favor, because the pregnant sister, whose very marriage is a shadowy affair, expresses a fear of "meeting" her child. I was reminded of Roland Barthes's The Empire of Signs.

Vladimir Nabokov's "The Word," published in Russian in 1923 but hitherto unpublished in English, is an exhalation of prose that attempts to portray a transcendent vision in which an angel explains everything to the dreaming author in one word - a word that the author cannot, upon awakening, remember. Rich as Nabokov's prose style could be, I don't think that he'd have Englished his story quite so floridly as his son has done. 

I didn't mean to save Taphar Ben Jelloun's "Beauty Is a Fate Better Than Death" for last, but here we are. A fable about marital infidelity that ends with a tidy twist, it is wry about nervous husbands, palm-reading, and vivid dreams. I'd have liked it better if suspense had been kneaded more lightly into the story's texture, but then I don't deal with suspense very well and usually look to the end of an eventful novel to see who's still alive. For me, suspense is a distraction, not an enhancement.

January 12, 2006

James Who?

As the scandal soaks up ever more attention, I feel that I must disclose the fact that, until Monday night, I had never heard of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Those of you who regard me as omniscient deserve the caution.

This latest literary crisis has inspired at least one patch of genuinely silver lining, however: a new strip from Patricia Storms.

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.

Nonfiction

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 05, 2006

Current Reading

Today was Ana Marie Cox day in New York City. The newly-retired editor of Wonkette and author of the just-published Dog Days, Ms Cox had an Op-Ed piece in the Times and was the subject of an article by David Carr in the paper's Arts section. She also appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show, where Andrea Bernstein was filling in. Ms Cox is undoubtedly giving a reading somewhere in the city tonight or tomorrow.

I'm not a follower of Wonkette, or any of its siblings, for that matter, but it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Ms Cox. She says that she will probably continue to keep some sort of Web log. Asked what advice she has for new bloggers, she nailed the basics: post at least one entry every day, and do a lot of linking. She didn't say anything about comments, which led to a "duh" moment on my part. Why write comments (that is, work) when you can just type a link? I'm not the brightest bulb in this chandelier.

Much more exciting news arrived in an email from a favorite reader who never comments. Jane Smiley is keeping a literary blog at The Huffington Post. She has apparently been posting on political matters, but now, she says, she wants to continue the work that she was doing in writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Her opening book: Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare. A few of the comments are downright unpleasant, and I hope that they don't chill Ms Smiley's enthusiasm.

But what you must read is Dan Baum's "Deluged," in the current issue of The New Yorker. This report of the collapse of the New Orleans Police Department in the floodwaters of Katrina is truly horrific, not because of what happened but because of what might have happened when the city's civic architecture evaporated.

January 02, 2006

Book Review

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

Fiction

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'."

Nonfiction

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 28, 2005

Reading Black Mischief

Starting on Friday, I'll be reading Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief online, at Good For You. It has been in my pile for some time, always passed over in favor of something else. A lamentable side-effect of relentless blogging is a focus on the timely, or at least upon the recent, and my contact with the classics (which Good For You was supposed to ensure) has suffered.

This is not a group read, exactly, but you're welcome to read along and to comment, either or both, as always.

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.

Fiction

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.

Nonfiction

¶ 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."

Nonfiction

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 16, 2005

Reading Notes from my Sickbed

Let's try to do this without tiring me out; just dragging the stack of magazines to the computer was wearying.

Granta 91: Wish You Were Here. How long has Simon Gray been scribbling memoirs on the Barbadian strand? This installment is eventually about Mr Gray's friend and colleague, the late Alan Bates; it takes seventeen entries for the piece to reach its subject. Happily, Simon Gray is an adorable procrastinator. Also absorbing was Simon Garfield's memoir of stamp collecting, "The Error World." Not that I've read much, but this is an excellent essay on the pleasures and pitfalls of philately, which all boys ought to be made to take up between the ages of eight and eleven. Stamp collecting is the royal road to mastering geography, and a subtle witness to modern history as well. Mr Garfield, his interest reawakened in middle-ages, teeters on the edge of an obsession with Errors - misprinted stamps - that, now that he can actually pay for them, might ruin him. As long as I'm on this issue, I have to point out Geoff Dyer's short and shocking "White Sands." The shock comes early and resonates right up until the end.

The Atlantic, December 2005. James Fallows has the cover story, "Why Iraq Has No Army." Since I don't want to know any more about the mess over there than I do, or in any greater detail, I skipped what was probably a lucid analysis. Like most Americans right now, I wouldn't know what to do with a lucid analysis. (I'll have more to say about this a little further along the list.) What I did read was Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident?" Studies of infant and juvenile behavior suggest that we come into the world hard-wired to believe in the supernatural and in a creator. Adults just tone this down and rationalize it - and of course they exploit it for purposes that would never occur to a child. Apparently, we learn about the material world - the one in which rocks fall and things stay where they are until someone moves them - much earlier than we learn about the "social" world's rules.

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for the understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

According to Mr Bloom, science and religion will always clash, because science makes no room for the duality that most of us (but not all) feel so intimately that we don't notice it. Science says, "that doesn't exist," and we feel robbed. The first lesson of science, of course, is that you don't go by your feelings; they're to be mistrusted at every turn. For lots of people, this is no way to live; it's not nice at all.

¶ In The Nation for December 26, 2005, Sasha Abramsky recounts the charming life story of Charles Graner, the ex-Marine prison guard who, recalled to Iraq, organized the Abu Ghraib follies. Nothing that he did surprises anyone back home in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Tara McKelvey writes about the think-tankers and scholars who have developed the Bush Administration's justifications of torture. Barry Schwabsky's long and knowing review of Art Since 1900 will have to wait until I sink my teeth into Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," one of these days when I'm not feeling poorly. In The Nation for December 19, Daniel Lazare reviews two very different books, The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine, and A History of the Jews in the Modern World, by Howard M Sachar. Mr Slezkine's looks to be the more interesting book by far, but it is contentious about Israel and Palestine.

¶ Michael Massing concludes his two-part look at the American media in The New York Review of Books, Volume LII No 20 (December 15, 2005). The first piece concentrated on structural problems, such as corporate ownership; the second focuses on the rot within the profession of journalism itself. What it comes down to, in argument after argument, is a failure of courage. Reporters and, more significant, as gatekeepers, editors, don't want to rouse the wrath of wingnuts.

When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, deounced as a an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such  incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off limits.

In other words, we're no better than Turkey, where discussing atrocities that occurred almost ninety years ago is still taboo. If you don't talk about it, it goes away. I wish that Paul Bloom would go back to those cognitive scientists who studied children and see if there's something in our early development that makes denial appear to be a successful strategy. Not that it ever, ever is.

Mr Massing correctly points out that, for one reason or another, the weekly New York Times Magazine is considerably bolder than the daily paper in its Iraqi reportage.

December 13, 2005

Brokeback Mountain I

No, I haven't seen the movie yet. I've just read it.

This afternoon, I came across not one but two links to The New Yorker's upload of "Brokeback Mountain," the Annie Proulx story that appeared in the magazine in October, 1997. I know I missed it then. I had had such a hard time with The Shipping News that I'm sure I didn't even give the story a try. Whatever that was all about, "Brokeback Mountain" read quite beautifully today, and I was crushed by its outcome, even though I'd read in all the reviews that it doesn't end "happily." In fact it ended much better than I thought it would. Nobody seems to have pointed out that Ennis Del Mar holds back from the relationship with Jack Twist - as a relationship - because his father decked his innocence by taking him to see the mutilated corpse of a local rancher who lived with another man. Jack, untested by such sights, imagines that the unimaginable is possible. Ennis is no fool, and he ends up ruefully alive. Maybe it's better to be dead than excluded from every hope of love, but Ennis's temporizing has a practical optimism that makes Jack's acting-from-the-heart just plain stupid. There is a symbolic story here about gay marriage that I hope will stir up truly serious debate. As someone even stranger to the people among whom I grew up than a gay man would have been, I sympathize completely with the gay community's solidarity, and only wish that I had some solidarity of my own, which I don't. But, like Ennis, I know that the choice is between life and death, not life and love. There are still too many unhappy men out there who want to play golf with their tire irons.

 

What I'