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Reviewing the Book Review

Holiday Books

6 December 2009

[This week's Book Review consists largely of topical round-ups and, oddly, genre-denominated reviews of single books. We have adhered to our policy of evaluating conventional reviews only. There are only eight of them in this issue.]

¶ David Margolick likes the biographical aspect of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, by Terry Teachout, but his feelings about the musical aspect of the book are confused.

There is a kind of perfunctory, dutiful quality to this part of Teachout’s tale; where Armstrong’s brilliance is beyond dispute, Teachout doesn’t seem fully engaged. Perhaps one simply can’t describe what’s so astonishing about “Potato Head Blues” — to me, it’s that Armstrong has miraculously made a trumpet laugh — but someone who’s thought about it as much as Teachout has should at least try, rather than leaning excessively (and pretentiously) on Woody Allen to do the job. Similarly, his account of the even more awesome “West End Blues” is clotted with hifalutin musical technicalities. It’s odd, because elsewhere ­Teachout praises Armstrong for avoiding musical jargon when talking about his music. The book sends you fleeing to your CDs, or to YouTube, just to figure out what he’s talking about.

Writing about music is perhaps the most difficult skill for a critic to learn. Mr Margolick appears to be calling for a new way of doing it, but these complaints do not point the way.

¶ Misled, perhaps, by Helen Walasek's subtitle, Charles McGrath seems to think that The Best of Punch Cartoons: 2,000 Humor Classics ought to be a funny book, even though he does grasp the nature of the enterprise.

Read straight through, from front to back, “The Best of Punch Cartoons” is more instructive than it is amusing. In some ways it’s a study in the evolution of the cartoon itself. The earliest examples in the book, dating back to the mid-19th century, mostly aspire to the condition of book illustration.

It would have been gallant for Mr McGrath, who used to work there, to note that a good many of the oldest cartoons from The New Yorker (which date, after all, only to 1925 at the oldest, not to the Nineteenth Century) are not very funny, either.

¶ Jason Zengerle's review of Bill Simmons's The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy earns its place in the Book Review by analyzing the novelty of Mr Simmons's approach to sportswriting.

Simmons has the writing chops to transcend the genre he’s established and maybe even turn out something that approaches his (and pretty much every sentient basketball fan’s) favorite hoops book, David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game,” but he doesn’t seem to want to. Thus, at various points in the book, he’ll arrive at some remarkable but overlooked chapter in N.B.A. history — like the episode in which the players selected for the 1964 All-Star Game threatened to sit it out two hours before tipoff unless the league agreed to a pension plan — and simply express his disbelief that no one has made an Emmy-winning documentary about it, instead of going to the trouble of telling the story himself. Similarly, his reliance on pop culture references, one of the hallmarks of the fan-as-scrivener genre, has become a crutch. He spends three pages on a pointless analogy between Kobe Bryant and the cheesy ’80s movie “Teen Wolf” and compares the Suns’ desperate efforts to trade Amare Stoudemire to Spencer and Heidi’s shopping “their fake wedding pictures,” as if anyone reading his book in five years will know who Spencer and Heidi are (something Simmons himself acknowledges in a jokey footnote).

Indeed, despite its doorstop-worthy heft, “The Book of Basketball” is very ephemeral...

As for Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, not so much.

Indeed, Ballard’s book helpfully reminds readers why the revolution in sportswriting that Simmons kick-­started was necessary in the first place. But it also highlights what’s missing from that genre. After reading “The Art of a Beautiful Game” and “The Book of Basketball,” I found myself wishing that Simmons, rather than merely holing up with a bunch of books and game tapes, had tagged along with Ballard on his reporting trips. After all, the strongest parts of “The Book of Basketball” are those that involved things Simmons experienced himself — whether as a youngster watching Bird at the Garden or as a journalist interviewing Bill Walton and Isiah Thomas. If these two books teach us anything, it’s that even the best newfangled sportswriter can learn something from a conventional one — namely, that it pays to get out of the man cave more often.

¶ Kathryn Harrison's review of The Red Book: Liber Novus, Carl Gustav Jung's hand-written folio of archetypal designs (edited by Sonu Shamdasani and translated with the help of Mark Kyburz and John Peck) could not be more soulfully favorable.

The Red Book not only reminds us of the importance of introspection, but also offers a guide to separating the self from the spirit of a time that would have astonished and offended Jung with its endless trivial distractions, its blogs and tweets and chiming cellphones. The creation of one of modern history’s true visionaries, The Red Book is a singular work, outside of categorization. As an inquiry into what it means to be human, it transcends the history of psychoanalysis and underscores Jung’s place among revolutionary thinkers like Marx, Orwell and, of course, Freud. The dedication — the love — with which it was assembled makes “The Red Book” as beautiful and otherworldly as a medieval book of hours.

¶ Christine Muhlke is blunt about Julie Powell's Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession.

The woman who came across as simply whiny and self-­absorbed in the film reveals a dark, damaged persona. Nora Ephron won’t be touching this one with a 20-foot baguette.

One senses a regret that Michelle Maisto's The Gastronomy of Marriage: A Memoir of Good and Love isn't similarly volcanic.

Maisto eventually gains confidence in both her meals and her chosen mate. Like Powell, she too finds the key to emancipation — this one rated R for Redbook. One night, as Rich decides what ingredients to throw into an impromptu meal, she writes of her “new favorite sight: the man I love taking the reins of dinner. It makes me feel buoyed, empowered; fit for a propaganda poster in which I’m striding with renewed confidence toward the great unknown of marriage.” Bon appétit.

¶ Barry Gewen's review of The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (edited by Robert Kimball, Barry Day, Miles Kreuger and Eric Davis) is somewhat occluded by his belief that "pop lyrics require the accompanying melodies coursing through one's head to come alive."

In the case of “The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer,” the scholarship is impressive, even by the standards of the earlier collections. Mercer churned out words with casual abandon. There are more than 1,200 items here; two sections of miscellany reproduce dozens of uncopyrighted and undated lyrics that will be of interest to, well, almost no one. It’s clear that the four editors were engaged in a labor of love, working right up to deadline (this year is Mercer’s centennial) to ferret out all the material they could find. Though 462 pages long, “The Complete Lyrics” is probably incomplete.

Most of the review, predictably if unhelpfully, goes to a thumbnail sketch of Mercer's vitals.

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