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Reviewing the Book Review

Holiday Books

30 November 2008

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

Nothing but  FACT this week, at least in the form of proper reviews...

¶ Neil Genzlinger tells us exactly why The Elvis Encyclopedia, by Adam Victor, does not merit coverage in the Book Review.

“Boo-ya!” is the expression of triumph a critic utters when assigned to review something like The Elvis Encyclopedia, because he knows that the book is essentially critic-proof and that he therefore need not bring any intellectual heft to the gig; instead, he can quickly dispose of the assignment using some cheesy gimmick.

¶ Alan Light appears to think highly of The Clash, by Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonson and Topper Headon (ie, The Clash), an oral history drawn mostly from interviews given in 2000, two years before Strummer's death. Mr Light notes that "Surprisiningly absent from The Clash is much sense of the group's political side," but, like The Elvis Encyclopedia, this book would appear to be critic-proof.

¶ Moving right along, we get exactly nowhere, as Les Standiford's The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits is yet another dubious entry in this week's Book Review. Referring to Peter Ackroyd's 1990 biography of Dickens, Kathryn Harrison seems inclined to dispute the thesis announced by Mr Standiford's title, but she takes the opportunity to do a fair amount of storytelling. In the penultimate line, she calls this book "a sweet and sincere" addition to the "juggernaut of Dickens scholarship" — having just suggested, however, that it may not be a necessary one.

¶ Somewhat more worthy of our attention is You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros Story, by Richard Schickel and George Perry, a big book with "scads of pictures" and an introduction by Clint Eastwood. Stephanie Zacharek interrupts her admittedly very interesting storytelling to note that

Schickel provides the anecdotes and the critical perspective: From him we learn that in the company’s early days, Jack Warner would wander around the lot at the end of the workday, switching off lights that employees might have left burning — a small but crucial cost-cutting maneuver, considering that the electric company had once turned off Warner’s juice when it failed to pay the bill. Perry contributes a series of nuts-and-bolts thumbnail histories, covering the significant Warner Brothers pictures over the decades (from The Jazz Singer through Rebel Without a Cause, Mean Streets and Batman Begins), and offers biographical sketches of the studio’s most prominent stars (among them Bette Davis, James Cagney, James Dean and George Clooney).

¶ Witold Rybczynski would be happier if Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Le Corbusier: A Life, were an architectural historian, and he faults Mr Weber's analyses of the famous buildings without appraising the biographical aspect of the book. Although he clearly loves Le Corbusier Le Grand, a large-format scrapbook from Phaidon, he has little to say that can't be grasped at once by anyone holding the book in a shop. The review is, unsurprisingly, an occasion for Mr Ryczynski to dilate upon a giant of modernism who increasingly seems more odd than vital.

¶ Bruce Barcott dismisses Roland Huntford's Two Planks and a Passion: The Dramatic History of Skiing as a doorstopper that "will have a long life as an après-ski bet-settler."

In his earlier books, Huntford chronicled the race to the South Pole (The Last Place on Earth) and wrote biographies of Ernest Shackleton and Fridtjof Nansen. “Two Planks” seems a natural progression for him. After all, hearty dogs and good skis made the difference for Roald Amundsen in his bid for the South Pole. But the earlier books were filled with tales of derring-do, and Two Planks seems overwhelmed by Huntford’s research. Somewhere along the way he abandoned his duty to include gripping stories and just started packing in trivia.

¶ Having confessed that skiing is not his passion — indeed, his review smacks of making a first acquaintance with the history of the sport — Mr Barcott might have endeavored to take a less disdainful line.

¶ David Thompson, who reviewer Bruce Handy tells us is "the most influential film critic of the post-Andrew Sarris, post-Pauline Kael generation," has written up one-page introductions to a thousand films, entitled Have You Seen...?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Mr Handy spars with Mr Thompson's judgments but does not ask why, among other things, Mr Thompson did not choose to publish his thumbnails at a Web site, where it would seem they belong. The book may be critic-proof, but the undertaking oughtn't to be.

¶ What exactly is the point of reviewing David Sedaris's Holidays On Ice, a 1997 book now reissued with extra trimmings. Alexandra Stanley complains of "feeling as if I've been regifted." The very idea of holding up Mr Sedaris's confection for appraisal seems fussy and Scrooge-ish.

¶ Toni Bentley, author of "an erotic memoir," pretty much overlooks Ian Kelly's book, Casanova: Actor Lover Priest Spy, in her eagerness to tell us about the great Eighteenth-Century writer. She doesn't tell us why we might want to read about Casanova when we can read the memoir that made him famous and for which, more importantly, he is famous. That, it seems to me, is the one thing that a review of a biography such as this one ought to tell us. Instead, Ms Bentley says that she prefers another biography, disposing of her evaluation in one sentence.

¶ In "the early 1960s," reviewer Charles McGrath tells us, Bob Dylan was invited to write a series of poems to accompany Hollywood photographs by Barry Feinstein. (We're not told whether the collaboration, now entitled Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript, was published at the time; it would seem not.) Mr McGrath's appraisal of the "interesting" project is handy:

Most of these poems, it must be said, read like the work of just a few moments. They lack the complexity, the emotional power of some of the great Dylan song lyrics, which, as Christopher Ricks demonstrated in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, ­really can stand comparison to Marlowe, Keats and Tenny­son. They’re mostly riffs, the poetic equivalent of scale playing. On the other hand, you can read these little verses without humming the tune in your head, and they allow you to appreciate Dylan’s verbal dexterity — his gift for rhyme and free association — in isolation, as it were. This is the kind of quickness and improvisatory brilliance that allowed those great lyrics to happen.

¶ Although she warns that readers of John Baxter's previous books will suffer a feeling of déja-vu while reading his new book, Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas, Dawn Drzal gives it a very winning review, generously heaping up the improbability of an Australian's becoming a French family's favorite cook. And he's not a professional, either.

That said, Immoveable Feast is entertaining, often very funny and surprisingly full of (mostly reliable) information — Baxter, after all, is not a professional cook; he generally writes about the cinema. Hemingway called Paris “a moveable feast,” but it’s the very solidity of the family to which Baxter now belongs, the unchanging nature of the ritual meal he prepares each year, that touches his vagabond soul. Ruminating in the kitchen among the remains of Christmas dinner, alone with the pots and empty platters, Baxter asks himself, “Not to be cast out, no longer to be a poor man and a stranger —what gift could be greater than that?”

¶ In fairness, I must confess that I read John Grogan's smasheroonie, Marley & Me — and that I gave it away almost immediately. Troy Patterson sounds similarly disenchanted, but, funny as it is in spots, I'm not sure that his snarky review of Mr Grogan's new book, The Longest Trip Home: A Memoir, accomplishes anything.

In Part 1, “Growing Up,” Grogan depicts the “dreamy, wondrous time” of his formative years with a fair bit of charm and a whole lot of goop.

What's "goop," you ask?

Grogan, with that yen of his for the simple joys, has not developed the skills required to paint complicated portraits of his siblings, or anyone, but he does memorably feature his brother Mike play-acting as a priest, at one point saying a two-hour funeral Mass for a parakeet.

What's the point, is more like it.

¶ A book about ballet: there's something vaguely oxymoronic about the concept. So it's not surprising that Jennifer Balderama's review of Reading Dance: A Gathering of Memoirs, Reportage, Criticism, Profiles, Interviews, and Some Uncategorizable Extras, a collection edited by Robert Gottlieb, is only two columns long. One sentence, really, suffices to tell the reader what needs to be known:

This is, in short, one big brick of dance-nut manna, a loving, exhaustive compilation by an editor-balletomane of sterling pedigree: shepherd of books by Fonteyn, Baryshnikov and Kirstein; biographer of Balanchine; dance critic for The New York Observer.

¶ Last and by far the most frustrating, Dana Jennings's review of Marty Stuart's Country Music: The Masters says a lot of things about a book that "feels more like an overstuffed milk crate exhumed from your great-grandfather's attic." Mr Jennings's topic sentence:

In the end, “Country Music,” perhaps unintentionally, reveals the deep melancholy of the artist as a 50-year-old country boy.

Unfortunately, this is how the review ends, not how it begins. What might have been an essay on the most death-haunted of the American arts is instead the half-hearted attempt at a catalogue. On the plus side, we're told that Mr Stuart has been a country musician for several decades, and that he took all the pictures.

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