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Reviewing the Book Review

Century's Playlist

28 October 2007

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

As is not surprising in this "Music Issue," there are a lot of doubtful or dispensable titles with more tattle than treble. But the regular fiction and nonfiction aren't so hot, either, with no Yeses among the former and only one among the latter.

I myself would almost rather go back to the dentist than sit down with The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross's big and widely-acclaimed new book about "new music." Mr Ross never fails to give the impression that he has read or heard everything, and his writing is brilliantly illuminated by flashes of insight that can, for example, send one back to a Schubert sonata with fresh ears. But his understanding of the general outlines of the history of music in the West strikes me as somewhat Received, the mother's-milk, ingested at Harvard if not earlier, that sustains the author's impressive stamina. I'd like to think that this book is a tombstone of sorts, a dismissal, ultimately, of a way of looking at, or listening to, or at least writing about, music. Now Mr Ross can really take off.

Joe Queenan's Essay, "Consider the Toothpick," however, has nothing to do with music, and is actually a book review in disguise. The book under review is Henry Petroski's new book about - toothpicks. This time, Mr Queenan mock-heroically warns, Mr Petroski has gone Too Far. "And just as France and England were compelled to belatedly intervene [in the invasion of Poland], literate, sane people must now step into the breach. This thing about things has gone far enough, Mr Petroski. Knock it off." He winds up on a positive Roz-Chastian note.

If Petroski is already fulfilling one clever historian’s prophecy that as academics retreat from the world writ large, they will teach us more and more about less and less, it is safe to suppose that his next books will include such titles as these: “The Dab: A Closer Look,” “The Shim That Time Forgot: A Short History of Those Little Wooden Things” and “Dust and the West.”

Don't say you weren't warned.


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

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross. Geoff Dyer gives this important if austere history of serious music in the last century a generous layman's review (not that Mr Dyer is as ignorant of musical niceties as he claims to be). Inevitably, the review makes the book sound more focused upon the political refractions through which composers had to fit their work than it does upon any music itself, and Mr Ross's apparent emphasis upon radical innovation has never been more controversial than it is now. Whatever one's quibbles, however, this is an important book about a serious aesthetic convulsion, not merely a book of interest to people who follow music.

The Surgeons: Life and Death in a Top Heart Center, by Charles R Morris. Pauline W Chen's favorable review strongly implies that this is necessary reading for anyone interested in the health-care mess. Mr Morris seems to be particularly adept at distinguishing between the institutions that "run" hospitals and the "artisanal" specialists who "operate" them - even if he does raise the possibility that the clash between the two "has already become a 'slow-motion political and administrative debacle'."

Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, by Jonathan Gould. Bruce Handy's favorable review, having noted that this book "lacks the intimacy of a full-fledged biography — if you want to know who John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr really were, you’ll do better elsewhere — but it compensates with an imaginative intelligence and a lively breadth of knowledge," concludes more positively,

If I had the space, I’d cite dozens more examples of Gould’s graceful unfoldings of various Beatle tunes. At his best, he lets you hear with keener ears the way a great novelist lets you feel with keener emotions. He even made me want to listen to “Eleanor Rigby” again. I can’t think of higher praise.


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

Matrimony, by Joshua Henkin. Jennifer Egan praises the parts of this novel that follows a quartet of college students into the complexities of mature life and love, but she is not so keen on the parts that mirror the author's struggle to write a novel.

For all Henkin’s ingenuity at bringing commitment, love and other potentially numbing topics freshly to life, he fails to animate Julian’s writing struggles above the familiar. We’re left with observations like “sure, he’d had two stories accepted at Harper’s, but he hadn’t been able to get back to his novel, which was why he had come to Iowa in the first place” and a meditation on the neglected importance of character in contemporary fiction that reads less like the play of a burgeoning writer’s thoughts than like an author telegraphing his readers: “There had emerged in American fiction a strain of excess, he believed, a group of knowing authors whose every sentence seemed to shout, ‘Look how smart I am.’ ” Julian the husband we’re urgently attuned to; Julian the novelist remains at a distance.

Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon; illustrated by Gary Gianni. Susann Cokal writes, in her generally favorable review,

Gentlemen of the Road is also a revival of the serial, having first appeared in installments in The New York Times Magazine. As might be expected from this sort of storytelling, virtually every chapter introduces a new setting and characters. And although the effect can be dizzying and the plot may twist a time or two too many, it’s hard to resist its gathering momentum, not to mention the sheer headlong pleasure of Chabon’s language.

My problem with reviews such as this is that Mr Chabon's language, while it never fails to sound "headlong," rarely sounds at all pleasurable. Calling Gentlemen of the Road a revival of the "all-but-vanished tale of derring-do" suggests that we are talking about books for boys here - and the men who can't leave their boyhoods behind.

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lam. Evan Hughes writes of this collection of interlinked short stories that "Mr Lam's work fits better among that of nonfiction writers like Jerome Groopman, Sherwin Nuland and Atul Gawande. He writes what is sometimes called "doumentary fiction," providing an insider's view of his field, replecte with the stark juxtapositions ... and the moral hazard that characterize the profession." In short, both fish and fowl.

Clapton: The Autobiography, by Eric Clapton. According to Stephen King's, this is a fine book if you're looking for what members of Alcoholics Anonymous call "drunkalogues." Mr Clapton rises, falls, "hits bottom," and struggles to his feet, where he has been standing for a good while now. As a book about the musician's life, however, it disappoints.

What Clapton’s drunkalogue lacks is any real insight into the music he’s spent his life playing. We know it gives him joy — he continues to live on what he once called “blues power” — but he’s only rarely able to communicate that joy, or convey what it was like to be a part of the mad hot ballroom that was the British pop music scene between 1963 and 1970.

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, and Me, by Pattie Boyd, with Penny Junor. All the generosity in the world doesn't enable Stephanie Zacharek to conceal the fact that Wonderful Tonight sounds like a great big Hello! interview.

Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, by Ben Ratliff. Pankaj Mishra writes lucidly about Mr Ratliff's subject, but he never quite determines whether this is an important study of a pivotal jazz innovator who died at the age of forty, or just one damned thing after another. Mr Mishra's references to Philip Larkin's fondness for "standard" jazz don't help our appraisal of Mr Ratliff's accomplishment.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks. Anthony Gottlieb's review makes it clear that this book lives up to its subtitle. If it's curious tales of odd pathologies that you're after, then this is the book for you; in example after example, however, I encountered people whose attachment to music had little in common with my own less violent passion, and, as is so often the case with the mentally afflicted, there are few signs of a humane sense of humor.

Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living With the Artists and Outlaws of New York's Rebel Mecca, by Ed Hamilton. More curious tales, this time about a caravanserai on Twenty-Third Street that, thanks to a recent change in ownership, may soon lose its raffish luster. Mr Giles's review presents a book that is more a collection of damaged human beings than of positively creative artists. If Mr Hamilton makes any room for, say, Virgil Thomson, Mr Giles doesn't tell us.

Lost Genius: The Curious and Tragic Story of an Extraordinary Music Prodigy, by Kevin Bazzana. At the end of Michael Kimmelman's review, I'd have paid money to avoid further contact with this book or its subject, a Hungarian pianist who knocked 'em dead when he was a kid but did not grow up well. Ervin Nyiregiyhazi stab at wit - "They play the right notes the wrong way; I play the wrong notes the right way" - is deeply pathetic, unworthy of a twelve year-old.

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music, by David N Meyer. Question: was Gram Parsons, who died at the age of twenty-six after several incandescent years with famous start-ups such as the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, a seminal influence on alternative American pop? Gregory Cowles does not, at the end of the day (or of his review, anyway), think that Mr Meyer has made the case for affirmation.

Indeed, Meyer suggests Gram was the unacknowledged muse for everyone from the Grateful Dead to the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Parsons was influential, without a doubt, but Meyer leaves little room for the zeitgeist itself. In an era that featured Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dylan and the Band, artists hardly needed the example of Gram Parsons to dig into rock’s rural roots.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre; and Zigzag: The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman, by Nicholas Booth. Reviewer Joseph Kanon finds it almost impossible to choose between these two new books about a dashing World War II double agent. He finds that Mr Macintyre "is the more graceful writer," but that Mr Booth's access to Chapman's widow juices up his account. The essential problem of books about double agents, however - their subjects' necessary moral vacuity - is not addressed in the review, which is happy to settle for "sheer fun."


These books, if they deserve coverage at all, ought to grace other sections of The New York Times.

The Pirate's Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson. Kaiama L Glover's unsparing review presents this book as a beach book with a vengeance.

This soap-operatic portrayal of Jamaican women falls far short of Cezair-Thompson’s goal. If indeed this is a tale about women scorned and, by extension, about a people scorned — unheard by history — then one might wish for those women to be of greater substance. Ultimately, though, the characters in “The Pirate’s Daughter” are much like Navy Island itself. They exist at a remove, so absorbed in their fantasy-driven interactions with one another that they fail to take notice of the wider world. They seem content, to borrow Ida’s description of herself, “to be there and alluring like the view, like the sea.”

A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle, by Lisa Campbell. Alida Becker wants to be nice about this book, but its rank opportunism glistens beneath the storytelling about an English aristocrat whose father was a nutty, self-absorbed bounder. Take away the "Macbeth's castle" part, and what you've got left is yet another dispiriting installment of The Twee Book of Money Management.

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