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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!

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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