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Reviewing the Book Review

Tabloid Princess

10 June 2007

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

No Noes this week. More than twice as many books in the Yeses than in the Maybes. Most welcome 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?

Yes

The following titles appear to deserve coverage in the Book Review. The reviews may still be inadequate or useless.

Nine, by Andrzej Stasiuk (translated by Bill Johnston). Reviews don't get much more positive than Irvine Welsh's. Having noted that this novel rises above its Warsaw setting and its "existential crime" story, Mr Irvine writes,

I caught a flavor of Hamsun, Sartre, Genet and Kafka in Stasiuk's scalpel-like but evocative writing. Nine feels like a major work of modern fiction, a portrait of an uprooted and restless generation of Eastern Europeans and of a city resigned to the fact that post-Communism is not quite as advertised.

The Collected Stories and Sylvia, by Leonard Michaels. Mona Simpson's review is everything that it ought to be, focused on Michaels's writing rather than on his stories. Of the late "Nachman" stories that might have made up a novel if the author had lived to finish a few more, Ms Simpson writes,

All the ornament seems burned off, purified; the narratives distilled and gorgeously plain, as only a great stylist's can become.

The Diana Chronicles, by Tina Brown. Caroline Weber's review presents us with an intelligent, well-written book that is inevitably somewhat self-referential, given that the author's success as a magazine editor enjoyed something of a piggyback ride on the Princess's celebrity.

With The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown breathes new life into the saga of this royal "icon of blondness" by astutely revealing just how powerful, and how marketable, her story became in the age of modern celebrity journalism. Indeed, while Diana named Camilla Parker Bowles as the third party in her unhappy union, she might also have mentioned a fourth: the media.

Richistan: A Journey Through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich, by Robert Frank. Alex Beam writes enthusiastically about this report on the latest vintage of the newly rich.

These aren't people who spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Because if they did, they would see, as Frank does, the contradiction between their middle-class protestations and high-profile philanthropic ventures on the one hand, and their ordering alligator-skin toilet seats for their private jets on the other. Frank is not a flashy writer, but he is smart enough to let the material come to him.

The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket, by Trevor Carson; and The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, by Sasha Issenberg. Jay McInerney discusses these two books books in such a way that each seems to flatter the other. Of Mr Corson's survey-cum-history- sushi used to be pickled! - he writes that the "chapter on rice, a subject that Americans take for granted, is itself worth the price of the book. Mr Issenberg, meanwhile, focuses on the global trade in bluefin tuna.

If the consumption of sushi is, as Issenberg proposes, a key indicator of modernization, a signifier of participation in the globalized economy, then it's only a matter of time before China and India become major markets for bluein tuna.

While the supply lasts, he hastens to add.

The Pentagon: A History: The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon - and to Restore It Sixty Years Later, by Steve Vogel. Where or not the Pentagon is an important office building (as distinct from the site of important offices) may be a subject of debate, but Witold Rybcczynski's review leaves no doubt that Mr Vogel tells the story of its construction very well.

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero. Mark Oppenheimer does not quite agree with Mr Prothero that knowledge about Christianity (and its Judaic antecedents) is essential for good citizenship, but he ably showcases this book's other important thesis, which is that American Christianity is devoid of doctrine. (Can it really be true that, as Mr Oppenheimer quotes, "Most Americans 'cannot name one of the four Gospels'"?

Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, by Padraig O'Malley.  Jeremy Harding writes that this book, about a principal anti-apartheid "activist" ("terrorist" might be more accurate), South African Satyandranath Ragunanan Maharaj, is a "striking success." Aside from the two sentences about the actual book, however, the review is comprised of storytelling.

Maybe

It is difficult to tell whether these books are actually as indifferent or pointless as the reviews suggest.

The Perfect Man, by Naeem Murr. Mark Kamine's very favorable review for this novel seems to suffer from compression. Information drowns comprehensibility in sentences such as this:

Another friend, Lew Tivot, having witnessed his younger brother's murder, has since been hounded to madness by the machinations of townsmen eager to keep the story quiet and by the incompetence of a psychiatrist more comfortable with jargon and theories than with the patients he treats.

The term "melodrama" is introduced and, somewhat unconvincingly, shrugged off.

The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture, by Brink Lindsey. George Will goes to bat for this libertarian account of postwar prosperity. Aside from a few complaints about the author's arguments, the review is pretty much a tissue of storytelling. Whether he means to or not, Mr Will suggests that Mr Lindsey sees what he wants to see.

Travels With Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski (translated by Klara Glowczewska). Tom Bissell's favorable review is charged with the flush of enthusiasm for a recently-deceased author whom many are inclined to regard as a classic. It is correspondingly somewhat dizzy. And insidery, too: "Those who know Kapuscinski's work have their favorite moments."

Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From the South, by Roy Blount Jr. Christopher Dickey breaks off an introductory discussion of the use of "y'all" thus:

But enough of that, let's talk about this book of essays, Long Time Leaving, and its author, Roy Blount Jr, whose pieces sometimes read like the monologues of a stand-up comic, which is perhaps unsurprising because he calls himself a humorist, lectures a lot and appears on those few radio talk shows one might call civiliized.

In other words, get the audiobook.

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