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The 10 Best Books of 2009

13 December 2009

The 10 Best Books of 2009.

¶ Deborah Solomon reviews Pop Art, along with three new books about it (Painting Below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art,  by James Rosenquist with David Dalton; Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol, by Tony Scherman and David Dalton; and Andy Warhol, by Arthur Danto).

The celebration of the kitchen as the locus of the American dream spilled over into Pop Art, especially in its early years, when artists appropriated images of soda pop and soup cans as well as a general just-mopped, mess-free look evocative of the suburbs. Rosenquist’s paintings, with their fragmentary views of faces and merchandise filling ever-larger spaces, at times can put you in mind of shopping malls, and it may be meaningful that he grew up in the state (Minnesota) where the first-ever enclosed mall opened, in 1956. The story of America since then is, among other things, the story of how postwar affluence and the belief in luxury for every citizen gave way to a style of spending that kept expanding until a time close to the present, when the money finally ran out and people lost homes, jobs and their confidence in the future. The Pop artists were prophetic because they saw a new kind of America coming, a country where you are what you buy.

The lion's share of the review goes to Mr Rosenquist's book, especially to placing him among his "peers." Mr Scherman's collaboration with David Dalton is found to "an excellent book, a work of great clarity and concision that makes Warhol (and rock critics) feel fresh again." Ms Solomon is — predictably? — cool to Mr Danto's theory of "the end of art," which was inspired by Warhol.

¶ Helen Vendler's review of John Ashbery's new book, Planisphere, is ipso facto magisterial.

In his rendering of American speech, slang, cliché, Ashbery has surpassed most of his contemporaries. But his persistent reach into the “rut” of tradition should not be forgotten. He could say (with the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío) that he is very 18th century and very archaic and very modern, daring and cosmopolitan. When he becomes most serious, it is in the presence of either catastrophe or truth. His onslaughts of tragedy, emotional or physical, are of geological force while not relinquishing the vocabulary of irony: “and the land mass teeters once more, crashing / out of gloaming onto the floor near your heels.” As for truth, it always hovers out of reach: he speaks of “today’s version of the truth,” on which “The enamel is just not going to keep.” Or, in a more sinister vein, the desired truth “just kind of sails overhead / like a turkey vulture, on parenthetical wing, / empty as a cupboard.”

¶ Having observed that compilations of journalistic pieces no longer make quite the sense that they made prior to the advent of the Internet, Franklin Foer praises George Packer's Interesting Times: Writings From a Turbulent Decade as a worthwhile exception.

This volume coheres better than most in the genre. That’s because Packer has a far more coherent worldview than most reporters. The first essay in this collection, “Living Up to It,” originally appeared in 2003 as the introduction to a collection Packer edited called “The Fight Is for Democracy.” That book was something of a manifesto for a group that came to be known as the liberal hawks. Packer makes a robust case that liberals should lead the fight against political Islam, which he sees as the latest manifestation of totalitarianism. In language that you don’t hear much in the Obama era, he writes of this ideological struggle, “There is no possibility of a negotiated peace, because the ideologies are incompatible — they can’t coexist.”

Looking back at the idealism of this essay — and others like it from the years immediately following 9/11 — Packer feels a bit uneasy. “Something in the tone and language no longer sits well,” he concedes. Yet he doesn’t distance himself any more than that. Nor should he. His rhetoric may have been overheated in places, but he was hardly a war-crazed neocon (though you wouldn’t know that from the complaints of some of his critics). His reporting on the “morning after Saddam” contains ample warning about the difficulties of reconstituting the deeply bruised Iraqi society.

¶ Jascha Hoffman has some reservations about Masha Gessen's Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, but he appears to locate its virtues.

Given the lack of firsthand evidence about Perelman’s motives, one could have hoped for a clearer sense of the work he pursued with such devotion. Gessen, herself a “math junkie” in school, confines the math to a single difficult chapter. (Readers who want more should consult Donal O’Shea’s lucid book, “The Poincaré Conjecture.”) But she does provide a thorough account of the circumstances that led to Perelman’s rise in the “vicious, backstabbing little world” of Soviet mathematics and a brilliant reconstruction of the twisted logic that might have led to his mysterious exit. In so doing she has written something rare: an accessible book about an unreachable man.

¶ In a single stroke, Bruce Barcott helps you to determine whether Richard Ellis's On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear is the book for you.

Ellis is a master amasser. “On Thin Ice,” like a number of his books, includes excerpt-stuffed sections that ride the line between history and anthology. One gets the sense that he starts each new project by gathering everything ever written about, say, polar bears, stacking the volumes in great piles, and consuming them in marathon pipe-and-slippers sessions. If you seek moments of poetic observation à la Barry Lopez, Ellis is not your guy. But if you’re looking for a complete digest of the history of human-polar bear relations, there’s nobody better.

¶ There is no excuse for Tom Bissell's extravagantly negative, almost insulting review of Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash: A Novel in Three Acts (translated by Alfred Mac Adam) Even the quotations from the book are rendered uninformative by the reviewer's hostility.

There are worse things to plow into, and they are here too — for instance, erotic passages almost Victorian in their prim tone: “Eva sat down next to him and ran her fingers over his sex.” “Then she laughed wildly and threw herself over my sex.” “I emptied another glass of vodka and sank my face into her sex.” Again, one assumes Mac Adam is doing his best to preserve the decorousness of Volpi’s Spanish, but the intimacy of novelistic English is best served by descriptive frankness. The effect, at any rate, is less decorous than ridiculous. It has been a long time since a novel of such unmistakably serious intent has been this unintentionally hilarious. That more or less ends the laudatory portion of this review.

¶ Beverly Gage is unpersuaded by John Milton Cooper's positive take on his subject, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, especially insofar as it offloads the racism and censorship of Wilson's terms in office onto cabinet members. Aside from that, however, his review is favorable.

A more nuanced approach might have let Wilson stand on his own contradictory terms. Yet this is a luxury not always afforded presidential historians, who must inevitably address how their subjects stack up against the competition. Cooper presents a powerful, deeply researched and highly readable case for keeping Wilson in the top ranks of American presidents, even if history might be better served by doing away with the contest altogether.

¶ Virginia DeJohn Anderson is so taken by the first First Lady that she hardly notices the book under review, Woody Holton's Abigail Adams.

Though the book’s narrative structure often compels the reader to excavate its dominant theme from a welter of biographical detail, the invigorating impact of the Revolution on Adams’s personality and actions is unmistakable. Holton, a professor of history at the University of Richmond, provides a fresh perspective that invites readers to do more than just remember this remarkable lady. They will admire her moxie and wish that the young Republic could have harnessed the talents and energies of women like her right from the start.

¶ Megan Marshall talks more about Henry James than she does about Erica Hirschler, the author of Sargent's Daughers: A Biography of a Painting. It is true that James's review of the painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, made Sargent's reputation in the United States, and it is also true that the story behind this most wonderful of American paintings is arresting. But the piece is not quite the review that it ought to be.

Sargent makes you feel simultaneously drawn into and excluded from the sisters’ world, a phenomenon that Erica E. Hirshler, a senior curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, explores in intriguing detail in her new book, “Sargent’s Daughters.” “From this singular picture,” she explains, “a novel unfolds.” And her “biography” of this painting — written after she documented the Boit sisters’ lives and researched every significant detail in the painting, from the “molded composition” baby doll (named Popau after a right-wing French politician) to the floor plan of the apartment to the “colossal” vases “made specifically for the West according to Japanese ideas about what Europeans liked” — is that thoroughly absorbing novel.

¶ Justin Davidson complains almost lovingly about the excesses on exhibit in the posthumous collection, Hearts of the City: The Selected Writings of Herbert Muschamp.

Yet his ramblings have value as a reproach to journalism’s culture of verbal thrift. Most of us who live from deadline to deadline learn to scrimp on column inches and discard unnecessary words before they have a chance to draw an editor’s economical eye. The successful sentence glides across the page and fits into the next one with an undetectable click. Muschamp, on the other hand, was a voluptuary of language, prodigal with words and nonchalant about non sequiturs. He occupied a major pulpit, but he delivered his homilies in a grandly, splashily non­institutional style. In New York’s developer-­driven world of compliant architecture, Muschamp’s columns offered a countercultural frisson, a streak of fuchsia in a gray coiffure.

¶ Ruth Scurr gives Louis Begley's Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters a warmly invigorating review.

Beyond being a clear introduction to the historical, legal, cultural and literary ramifications of the Dreyfus Affair, this book is a call to arms to contemporary creative writers to address the damage done to “the fabric of American society by the crimes and abuses of the Bush administration committed in the course of its pursuit of the war on terror.” Begley eagerly awaits the emergence of America’s Zola or Proust, to probe courageously the wounds of deep political division in great fiction. “Once again it is up to us poets to nail the guilty to the eternal pillory,” Zola wrote to Dreyfus’s wife. Begley argues that that time has come again.

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