Books

The Man Without Categories
June 11, 2008

The Assistant By Robert Walser Translated by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions, 301 pp., $16.95) I. By now the snapshot of the dead Robert Walser has become one of German literature's most often reprinted and commented-upon photographs, its unstaged, accidental existence only reinforcing the image's iconic charge: the last moments of an almost-forgotten great author in an age of mechanical reproduction. Not surprisingly, descriptions of the photograph all bear a striking resemblance to one another.

Three Possibilities
June 11, 2008

Like that time when all I wanted was to hole up in my room. I had allowed myself to be forgiven, and there I was feeling this pathetic, incriminating gratefulness. Or at my favorite professor's dinner party when I gave birth to what I thought was a new idea, and the room fell quiet with tolerance. I still hear that tolerance. Or that evening I forgave her her betrayal because it lessened mine, and found myself for once the forgiver, trying to enjoy that rare high ground. Poisonous, the air up there.

Missions Accomplished
June 11, 2008

The Roman Triumph By Mary Beard (Harvard University Press, 434 pp., $29.95) Everybody over the age of four knows how important it is not to be a "sore loser"--and how difficult. When you lose your whole fortune to your sister at Monopoly, you are not supposed to burst into tears, accuse her of cheating, call her a greedy old moneybags, hit her, tear up the paper dollars, hurl the pieces across the floor, or run screaming from the room. You are supposed to be gracious in defeat: congratulate the winner, allow her to enjoy her victory, stifle your sorrow, and pretend not to mind too much.

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.

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