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Reviewing the Book Review

Cartoons for Grown-Ups

19 October 2008

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

In his Essay, "Unsafe at Any Read," Lee Siegel tries on the churlishness of P J O'Rourke. The result is unattractively sophomoric. One almost wants to take away Mr Siegel's reading privileges, if he's going to talk about books with like that.

Joseph Epstein's book about Fred Astaire gets one of those odd reviews that make one wonder if anybody's book about a subject so dapper would be guaranteed coverage in the Book Review, reviewed, just to give some expert the opportunity to expatiate on an appealing figure (shown in an accompanying photograph). That is certainly the tone of David Thomson's chilly review.

KEY: Blue (We all ought to read it);  Red (I've heard good things about it, or liked other books by the same author); Fuchsia (Don't know anything about this book, but I'm attracted); Orange (Don't know/not attracted); Purple (I've got it); Maroon (Big Literary Deal); Black (Out!)


¶ David Kamp begins his sympathetic review of Jules Feiffer's Explainers with the alarming observation that "there's an entire generation of parents and kids who know Jules Feiffer solely as a children's book author." He goes on to introduce the (once?) famous Village Voice cartoonist to readers under the age of N.

Feiffer’s basic scheme was to mine the humor of social and political blather — to show, in a funny way, how people talk and talk but never connect. In our current age of blogs, compulsive confessionals and nightly shoutfests on Fox News and MSNBC, it’s no surprise that so many find him prescient.

But paging through “Explainers,” I don’t see cynicism. Given the strips’ vintage, I can’t help thinking of the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sounds of Silence”: “People hearing without listening / People writing songs that voices never share.” As unrelenting a satirist as the young Feiffer was, he had a bit of Paul Simon’s winsome earnestness. His humor was dark but not nihilistic; he held out hope that his characters would straighten themselves out.

A whole generation? Can this be true? (I do wonder why Mr Kamp doesn't mention Shel Silverstein.)

¶ Douglas Wolk's extremely insidery review of graphic fiction by Los Bros Hernandez, as Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez call themselves, even though they do not collaborate, left me feeling quite out of it, but eager to see more of one of the following:

But only one, I think. Which?

Like most of Hernandez’s books, “The Education” was initially serialized in “Love and Rockets,” the series he’s shared with his brother Gilbert since 1982. The two virtually never collaborate, and they could scarcely be more dissimilar in style, but their work appears side by side so regularly that they often simply call themselves “Los Bros. Hernandez.” After 50 issues as a magazine and another 20 in a more standard comic book format, “Love and Rockets” has now entered its third incarnation, as an annual paperback book subtitled “New Stories.” Jaime’s cover for the first volume shows a gigantic super­heroine calmly removing the Art Deco top of a skyscraper and replacing it with a propeller beanie. That’s pretty much what the brothers are up to on the inside: having established themselves as masters of the subdued, lit-fic-style graphic novel, they’re hauling the rockets back onto the launch pad and blasting off.


¶ David Thomson has nothing bad to say about Fred Astaire, by Joseph Epstein — the book, that is. (He's concisely interesting about Astaire himself.) But I've certainly read warmer reviews.

Joseph Epstein, the author of “Snobbery,” has taken up Yale University Press’s offer (in a series called “Icons of America”) to write about Astaire. Fred Astaire is a very readable and glowing 50,000-word portrait, notwithstanding Epstein’s determination not to subject Fred to rough cross-­examination or prolonged background scrutiny. So his book is an essay (without illustration in the usual sense), a survey of a master’s sweep, the sort of slim book that could accompany a PBS tribute. But if you’re introducing Astaire to a novice, know that this book not only rejects depths to explore, it prefers to believe they do not exist. Further, Epstein seems to assume you can’t really describe a dance routine, and settles for a few potent, impressionistic touches. This is all very well, but an Astaire virgin might do better to spend the $22 on a DVD of Top Hat or Swing Time or even Silk Stockings. With Astaire, the vital lesson lies in seeing what he does and then realizing how determined he is to make it seem effortless. That ease is directly linked to the daft stories, which don’t bear thinking about. The omission is all the plainer as one comes to Epstein’s excellent commentary on Astaire the singer.

¶ Would the editors have condescended to give coverage to Crossbearer: A Memoir of Faith, by Joe Esterhas, or to Ann Rice's Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, if they hadn't been able to count on a slow-popping roast by Christopher Buckley — an unsympathetic review if only because he has not, like these authors, returned to the Roman Catholic fold in middle age — ?

They could not be more different: Eszterhas writes with his fists. You practically duck as you turn the page. Rice is a voice whispering at you from behind a beaded curtain: you have to lean into the binding. Neither is exactly pleasurable. Eszterhas’s mad account at times makes you want to hurl the book out the window, and yet you don’t. You keep going, thinking, where — on earth — is this headed? The man is more than one bubble off plumb, and yet you can’t help liking him. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” writes Paul in I Corinthians 4:10. (A line oddly not adduced by Eszterhas.) Joe Eszterhas is God’s fool, all lit up in neon, and it’s quite the show. You will be appalled, you will be revolted, you will almost certainly go, Oy gevalt, but you won’t be bored. And you may even be moved. Upon reaching the end of Rice’s book, by contrast, you may feel as though you’re emerging from an overlong slog through a catacomb, gasping for air. It’s pretty dank down there.

As usual, Mr Buckley writes as if he were the Fred Astaire of nimbly entertaining prose — somewhat upstaging the books while he's at it.

¶ Here's an exciting review: British author Roald Dahl was a British agent during World War II — spying on us! Only at the end of his slightly bemused review of Jennet Conant's The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington does Jacob Heilbrunn finally let out a sigh:

How much does all this have to do with World War II? Dahl’s stream of gossipy reports about the doings of the Washington glitterati were nectar for London, which was terrified that the Roosevelt administration would turn on it after the war ended. Every government, then and now, is always keen to learn the inside dope. But what Conant never makes quite clear is whether Dahl ever supplied any information of real consequence.

¶ Noting the recent popularity of books about Old Havana (Telex from Cuba, for example), Randy Kennedy hails Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause, by Tom Gjelten, as "exhaustively researched" if "a bit too sober at time."

Gjelten also provides a fascinating look at how the company built itself into the multinational giant it has become, in part because it realized very early on the importance of something that most other companies undervalued until much later in corporate history: a recognized name and brand. As early as 1919, the company declared that about two-thirds of its worth, then $3.7 million, was an estimate of the value of its name and trademarks alone. And it defended those assets with the kind of ferocity it later trained on Castro. Shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, for example, the company sued the Barbizon Plaza hotel in Manhattan, accusing its barmen of pouring drinks they blasphemously called Bacardi cocktails, with no Bacardi rum anywhere in the mix. (The company won.)

¶ Virginia Woolf's relations with her servants might seem to lack literary interest, but Claire Messud persuasively argues to the contrary in her warm review of Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and Her Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury. Leonard Woolf, a busy writer and editor himself, benefited from the sevices of cooks and housemaids no less than Virginia did, but she was expected to deal with women belowstairs, a job for which she was much less suited than she was for theirs. (Woolf was a great baker of bread.)

But as anyone who has been or had a cleaner or a baby sitter knows, the tensions, the concern and responsibility, the emotional involvement, are not unique to Woolf or to Bloomsbury: they are the near-inevitable stuff of women’s lives to this day. As readers, we must be grateful that Virginia had the good fortune to have help — she was so emotionally delicate that she would have written little without it — but this reader, at least, can’t help wondering what Lottie Hope, too, might have done or created, had she not been consigned to dance over saucepans.

One longs for Hermione Lee, whose biography of Woolf scrutinizes her servant problems, to write an essay comparing the Englishwoman to another one of her subjects, Edith Wharton, a grande dame who seems to have been very good with servants. As anyone will tell you (ghastly though it sounds), all it takes is a firm and steady hand, as well as genuine kindness.

¶ One wishes that Linda Perlstein's favorable but too-short review of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough, were longer and more engaged with the important-sounding subject of this book. Short space has the effect of exaggerating Ms Perlstein's points, pro and con.

Still, when it comes to an introduction to the debate about poverty and parenting in urban America, you could hardly do better than Tough’s book. The children of the uneducated and impoverished too often bear a gloomy inheritance, their futures set in stone from an early age. Within Canada’s 97 blocks, Tough finds a different kind of legacy — one shaped by parents who have learned to pay attention to their children’s developmental needs. With a support network unlike anything else in America, the children of Harlem can envision a future so many others expect as a matter of course.

Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, James M McPherson's new book about the Civil War, gets a glowing and persuasive review from Jean Edward Smith

This is not a book about White House table talk, the president’s spiritual values, his relations with Mary Todd or even his deep-seated opposition to slavery. It is about how Lincoln led the nation to victory: his formulation of the country’s war aims; his mobilization of public opinion; his diplomatic and economic leadership. Above all it is about his oversight of military strategy, in short, his duties as wartime commander in chief — duties that Lincoln defined and executed for the first time in the nation’s history. A peacetime president is circumscribed by elaborate checks and balances. In the full flush of war, Lincoln learned to act unilaterally.

¶ Michael Shae reviews two new books about beef. The first, Betty Fussell's Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, comes across as an inflated magazine article that ought to have been reviewed in the Dining Section.

All that heterogeneity, however, is also hard to corral. You can’t help admiring Fussell’s tireless willingness to crawl through thornbrush, ride in a parade dressed up as a cowgirl, sit through industry conferences, and suit up in near-biohazard gear to learn butchering. But despite her vivid mosaic of fervent characters, folklore, science and paradox, the big picture doesn’t quite come into focus. Halfway through, as Fussell tours a giant beef processing plant, a passage leaps out that could provide a metaphor for the book itself: “We make our way through the giant mechanical perpetual-motion food chain, up and down stairways, above and below catwalks, in and out of doorways, in and out of red-fleshed carcasses and white-coated workers. But we don’t proceed in a narrative order, from receiving pen to Cryovac packs, so that I’m never sure how one unit fits into the others.”

As for Beef: The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World, by Andrew Rimas and Evan D G Fraser sounds somewhat more world-historical, if not exactly sizzling.

Rimas and Fraser, ranging more widely than Fussell, take a more conventional historical approach to their subject. And they sprinkle their book with recipes as well, lest we forget why we’re interested — if in fact we are — in anecdotes about cows in Homer and the Bible, and in medieval Kiev, Georgian Britain and the Great Rift Valley. Cattle, it seems, have always been among us, and Rimas and Fraser explore how over the millenniums they have served not only as food but as objects of wealth, myth and cultural self-definition. But our coexistence is nearing a crisis. Rimas and Fraser assert, more starkly than Fussell, that the beef industry as it now exists is unsustainable; and they counsel consumers to learn “restraint” — which they admit has never been much in evidence where beef is concerned.


¶ David Kirby's warm review of Liberty: A Lake Wobegon Novel gives a fine idea, for anyone who needs it, of Garrison Keillor's humorous way with the folks in his fictional town. I should have thought that there was no more need to review this book than to explain why it's impossible for all children to be "above average."

Like Mark Twain, Keillor takes time to spell out details and, in so doing, convert the base metal of small-town tedium to the gold of comedy. If, in one of his radio broadcasts, he’s telling you how somebody is going to put his grandmother’s ashes into Lake Wobegon, for example, he’ll describe how the mourner is going to pack them into a bowling ball first and drop it into the water while parasailing, only his swim trunks are going to slip down in the process so he’ll end up flying over the lake naked.

¶ Josh Emmons's second novel, Prescription For a Superior Existence gets an almost unintelligible too-short review by Karen Olsson. Ms Olsson seems to like the book, but her tone of voice suggests that liking or disliking the book is somehow beside the point, given the fact that we're living in what many Americans seem to take to be End Times. There may be a real call for a Texas Monthly Book Review.

¶ Jennifer Egan is very enthusiastic about the seventy pages of The English Major, Jim Harrison's new novel, that feature a foxy dame called Marybelle.

Marybelle’s departure is a relief to Cliff but a blow to the novel. He continues his picaresque, visiting his son in San Francisco and an old friend on his Arizona snake farm. Marybelle leaves kooky messages on the cellphone she insisted Cliff buy (“I yearn for your company. . . . You might buy a few clothes because you look like a hick farmer. . . . Profound kisses”) and even reappears briefly at the home of Cliff’s son. But her madcap behavior gave Cliff something to brace himself against, and without it he — and the novel — seem to drift. As if feeling this, Cliff takes to overt musings about the meaning of his voyage: “Obviously my road trip had begun to tug my mind back from the so-called real world to the world of books I had so valued in my late teens and early 20s,” he says at one point. And on the breakup of his marriage, he reflects: “Maybe we were just an­other couple who faded late in the game. . . . We English majors of a serious bent are susceptible to high ideals we paste on our lives like decals.” Cliff repeatedly characterizes himself as an English major in the latter part of the book, but what exactly this notion is meant to connote — either to Cliff or to the reader — is never clear.

This judgment makes one wonder why the editors saw fit to assign the work of a seasoned male novelist to a rising young female novelist.

¶ Calling it "irreverent and very funny, David Leavitt writes that Sicilian Tragedee, by Ottaviano Cappellani (translated by Frederika Randall) is something of a cinematic romp.

Although Sicilian Tragedee abounds in references to Lampedusa’s “Leopard” and allusions to Shakespeare, with whose plays Cappellani displays a formidable intimacy, it’s a great early ’60s film — Pietro Germi’s “Divorce Italian Style,” which is also set in Sicily — that the novel brings most vividly to mind. From the friction between sacrosanct tradition and a changing world, Cappellani, like Germi, generates full-throttle comedy with a bitter edge. It’s only after the laughter stops that you smell the gunpowder.

¶ Nathaniel Rich begins his review of Irvine Welsh's Crime by defending the Scots author against the charge of being grim. Then he complains that that's just what the new book is: grim.

The relationship between Lennox and Tianna sometimes cloys, but Welsh understands the uncomfortable and often grotesque ways that victimized children are altered by sexual abuse, and avoids the impulse to turn Tianna into a saint. And Lennox, though his motivations are overelaborated through too many back stories, is a more complex figure than he first appears; his dark side emerges at surprising moments, as in a haunting scene near the end of the novel, when he must impersonate a craven child molester in order to gain the confidence of an enemy. Crime is an ambitious, compassionate and serious book; many of Welsh’s fans, however, will miss the trash talk, the perverse comedy and, yes, even the spastics.

¶ John Freeman makes bold claims, by association (with Jonathan Franzen), for The Given Day, Dennis Lehane's novel about a 1919 Boston police strike. But his review gives the book a rather pop cast.

All these events are seen through the eyes of a family of Irish-American cops, a fresh-off-the-boat house domestic from Donegal, an African-American on the run, and a half-dozen historical figures, from the politically outgunned city mayor, Andrew J. Peters, to the investment banker James Jackson Storrow and young J. Edgar Hoover. To return to baseball metaphors, nine books into his career, Lehane has picked up the big lumber and is swinging for the fences. But does he have the power to hit the long ball?

The Given Day may not be the ­ecstatic “yes” its scope implies — it’s too long, and peopled by too many cartoonish villains — but it does represent a huge leap forward for Lehane. The novel begins with a terrific set piece about Babe Ruth (then with Boston) riding a train back home with his teammates. On a long stop in Ohio, they strike up a game with black factory workers, who open up a quick lead — until the white players begin to cheat. It’s an ominous foreshadowing of things to come: the rich playing by different rules, corporations doling out leisure time in drips, themes Lehane has hammered at in his fiction.

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