Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sunday Review of Book Reviews

The Washington Post Book World has capsule reviews of four political books, which are all intriguing--especially Peter Galbraith's book of macroeconomic solutions that most appeal to my New Dealer sensibility. The reviews are succinct and tantalizing.

The London Times Literary Supplement contains a deeply fascinating and informative review of a new biography of Florence Nightingale. The review deftly describes the author's understanding of how Nightingale may not have saved many in a time of war, but used what she learned from nursing wounded and dying soldiers to improve life for people after the Crimean War and for the rest of the 19th Century. Gender issues also are explored in a way that is not caricatured, which was a relief to me.

I must also admit I am not a fan of most poetry, but this review in the TLS of the latest edition of the famed poet Auden's prose about poetry was an interesting read. It was a bit long for my limited taste in poetry. However, it has that empirical air of detail that does make American readers wince at British writing (not this American, on most days, I will further say...), so again I found it intellectually fruitful reading.

I must admit I missed the September 4, 2008 LA Times review of a book that gives us a glimpse into the life of a most underrrated publisher, Generoso Pope, Jr., who breathed life into The National Enquirer and started the Weekly World News, a wacky weekly that constantly told us we were being invaded by aliens. The film, "Men in Black" (the first one) did warn us, however, that maybe The Enquirer and the WWN were really reporting correct information after all...

Overall, I am favoring the eclectic this week as I believe most readers will have found a review of Woodward's new book on the Bush administration's failures (former aides blaming others, especially Bush, as Woodward now surveys the wreckage) and the book on the Hamdan case, along with books on what to do about terrorism. I am more and more seeing Al Queda as a Mafia sort of group, and it demands more than police interdiction, but definitely not a war. It is a twilight war at best and perhaps I can return to that theme another time.

In the meantime, having recently finished William Dean Howells' "The Landlord at Lion's Head" (published in book form in 1897) and immensely enjoyed it, I have been searching out other later Howells (having already read and enjoyed "The Rise of Silas Lapham" and "Hazard of New Fortunes"). What I love about Howells is his still relevant understanding of America as a commercial culture (much like my all time favorite novelist, Sinclair Lewis), but also his beautifully written, but chaste prose. The way "The Landlord at Lion's Head" opens reveals Howells' influence on Steinbeck, for example:

If you looked at the mountain from the west, the line of the summit was wandering and uncertain, like that of most mountain-tops; but, seen from the east, the mass of granite showing above the dense forests of the lower slopes had the form of a sleeping lion. The flanks and haunches were vaguely distinguished from the mass; but the mighty head, resting with its tossed mane upon the vast paws stretched before it, was boldly sculptured against the sky. The likeness could not have been more perfect, when you had it in profile, if it had been a definite intention of art; and you could travel far north and far south before the illusion vanished. In winter the head was blotted by the snows; and sometimes the vagrant clouds caught upon it and deformed it, or hid it, at other seasons; but commonly, after the last snow went in the spring until the first snow came in the fall, the Lion's Head was a part of the landscape, as imperative and importunate as the Great Stone Face itself.

When reading Howells, a reader may also notice a sense of literary decorum that he maintains even when describing horrible people, drunkards and mawkish aristocrats--a sensibility our current popular culture has almost completely lost. Too often, we'd rather be crass ourselves when describing crass people. Perhaps that is why Howells seems out of place in our modern time, which is a shame because his insights are, again, spot on about America and Americans in this first decade of the 21st Century.



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