Books

The Isolato
June 11, 2008

The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad By John Stape (Pantheon, 369 pp., $30) Among the great English novelists, Conrad most resists our understanding. There is sense in this. His largest theme is mystery, and the heart of all his greatest work is dark. He understood this early. "Marlow was not typical," we read of the surrogate who narrates the first and most celebrated of his major works; "to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze." An empty center, then, surrounded by mist.

Yesterdays
June 11, 2008

A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances, and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century By John Burrow (Knopf, 553 pp., $35) History was born in Greece in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. It has flourished ever since then, in diverse but recognizably related forms, and it still exists today, as a form of inquiry into the past, a literary genre, and a set of practices plied and taught in universities. That's our story, in the West, and we're sticking to it. Or at least John Burrow is.

The Wild Card
June 11, 2008

Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq By Patrick Cockburn (Scribner, 227 pp., $24) To feel the power of Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric and tormentor of the Americans in Iraq, all you needed to do, in the years after the invasion, was go to the Mohsin Mosque in eastern Baghdad. There, spread in the street for a half a mile, as many as fifteen thousand young men would stand assembled, prayer mats in hand, waiting for the service to begin. The scene was safe: Mahdi Army gunmen searched the cars and the supplicants for bombs.

Carwash
May 28, 2008

I love the iridescent tricolor slime that squirts all over my Honda in random yet purposeful patterns as I sit in the semi- dark of the "touch-free" carwash with you. Listening to the undercarriage blast, I think, "Love changes and will not be commanded." I smile at the long flesh-colored tentacles waving at us like passengers waving good-bye. Water isn't shaped like a river or ocean; it mists invisibly against metal and glass. In the corridor of green unnatural lights recalling the lunatic asylum, how can I defend myself against what I want? Lay your head in my lap. Touch me. By Henri Cole

Novel or Nothing
May 28, 2008

The Journey Abandoned: The Unfinished NovelBy Lionel TrillingEdited by Geraldine Murphy(Columbia University Press, 256 pp., $26.95) I. One of the several advantages of living long is the chance to witness the trajectory of other lives, especially literary lives; to observe the whole, as a biographer might; or even, now and then, to reflect on fame with the dispassion of the biblical Koheleth, for whom all eminences are finally diminished.

We Shall Be Happy
May 28, 2008

Frank O'Hara: Selected Poems Edited by Mark Ford (Knopf, 266 pp., $30) The poet Frank O'Hara is buried under a gravestone bearing a phrase from his poem "In Memory of My Feelings": "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible." Fate contrived that O'Hara should be born various: he had the mind and the heart of a musician, an art critic, and a poet. He himself took care of living variously--as sibling, friend, traveler, partygoer, lover.

The Blog of War
May 28, 2008

Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of CivilizationBy Nicholson Baker(Simon and Schuster, 567 pp., $30) I."The ideal Gawker item," Nick Denton, the owner of Gawker Media, wrote in an instant message, "is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head."And it's 100 words long."200 max."Any good idea can be expressed at that length." According to The New York Times, Denton was, when he wrote that, one of the most influential figures in online journalism.

Ein Leben
May 28, 2008

In the month of her death she stands at the window,a young woman with a permanent wave, elegant,thoughtful, gazing outside.In the brown photograph. From outside an afternoon cloud of '34gazes at her, blurred, out of focus,but faithful to her permanently. From insideI gaze at her, four years old, almost, I stop my ball,and slowly leave the photograph and grow old,aging cautiously, quietly,so as not to frighten her. By Dan Pagis; Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Wieseltier

Bulbs And Bubbles
May 28, 2008

TulipMania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age By Anne Goldgar (University of Chicago Press, 425 pp., $30)   Deep within the massive masonry structure of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, an archive is tucked away among the domed vaults of the north aisle.

Cosmic Realism
May 28, 2008

The Boys in the Trees By Mary Swan (Holt Paperbacks, 224 pp., $14) Words have become too self-conscious, too anxious, to sit still on the page. In a world blaring with YouTube videos and buzzing with blog posts, there is, especially in fiction, an apparent need to justify the extended use of text. Why write a story when you can film one? Why read when you can watch? Writers, when they react to this new instability, tend either to defiantly renounce the page or to defensively embrace it.

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