More So-So Books. . .
Becker, Marion Rombauer, et al. The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking. Scribner, 1997.
The nice lady in the used book store described The Joy of Cooking as a hodge-podge. She was referring to the earlier editions, and of course she was right. They seem to have no guiding principle in the choice of recipes, although there is a guiding taste in each individual recipe. Almost everyone I've talked to considers that guiding taste insipid. One suspects that the authors of those earlier editions were looking for a neutral representative of some 'average' American taste, but that what they ended up with was a lowest common denominator. That's not to say that the earlier, classic editions of The Joy of Cooking are bad cookbooks. They are just not monographs, but rather encyclopedias. And when did you last see an intelligent person above the age of twelve taking an encyclopedia at face value? The virtue of the old editions of The Joy of Cooking, like the virtue of an encyclopedia, is in including everything. If you need instructions for cooking rabbit, starting with a live rabbit, they are there.
The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking is a very different book. Almost everything now includes hot peppers, specified by variety, and cilantro. And there seem to be fewer recipes, although I haven't checked the numbers. The sections on freezing, canning, and so on are gone. But the book is still a hodge-podge. It's hard to understand the chief editor's personal taste. (The book doesn't really have any authors any more, as far as I can tell; it was composed by an enormous staff.)
I will continue to use both my crumbling 1975 paperback and the All New, All Purpose.... The older edition includes introductions to pretty much everything, while the recipes in the All New, All Purpose... are usable pretty much as they're written. Of course, how often in real life does one even try to use a recipe exactly as it's written?
Lapierre, Dominique. The City of Joy.
Despite the disclaimer that only the names have been changed, this book awakens in me all of my distrust for books which are neither fiction nor nonfiction, but something in between. As often happens in certain types of fiction, everything is too neat. Anand Nagar is too full of love; we have the love with which one of the residents saves the madwoman from being lynched by a mob of the others drummed into our heads, but Lapierre neglects to point out that it's not so loving to murderously hate someone for no crime other than being mentally ill. The Miami neighborhood in which the Loebs live is too full of billionaires. How many billionaires are likely to live in one Miami neighborhood? The sex scenes may not be numerous, and may not be extravagantly titillating, but they are too irrelevant to have a place in any serious book, almost by definition.
I have never run into Lapierre describing natural phenomena before - his books are very urban, and I was surprised at how well he could do it. The descriptions of the droughts and monsoon floods are horribly effective, and he manages to capture the irrational joy which we who live places with an absolute dry season feel at the year's first rains, and our reluctance to admit to ourselves when excessive rain is turning into a disaster.
Townsend, Sue. Public Confessions of a Middle-aged Woman.
Collections of short essays of identical length, essays of the sort which appeared as a 'column' in a periodical, are usually bad. Some are silly and cute, while some of the more famous ones are silly and pretentious (I admit, though, that Lewis Thomas' fast-food profundity cannot be used as an example because it is in a class of its own.) "Confessions" tend to be of the silly and cute variety, with confessions written by middle-aged women being the cutest.
It is therefore surprising that Sue Townsend has some interesting things to say, especially if you read between the lines. She sees herself as being in essentially good health, even though she apparently has insulin-dependent diabetes and at the time when one of the essays was written was losing her vision as a result. She is capable of admitting that she has a husband without being either embarrassed or condescending. And she is capable of mentioning menopause without confusing it with the Magna Carta.
Fortescue, Winifred. Perfume from Provence.
When they saw the commercial success of Mayle's
A Year in Provence and almost any other books about English-speakers setting up housekeeping in rural areas of Latin countries, the publishers decided to revive Perfume from Provence. Lady Winifred Fortescue's first book is probably no worse than most others of the wave, but it's certainly no great book. There are occasional strokes of real humor, mostly in describing her own adventures or the behavior of the locals, but the book tends to be too cute, and Lady Fortescue's attempt at lyricism are even more saccharin than saccharine. Along the same lines, she frequently wants to describe someone's enormous abdomen, or his habit of folding his hands on it, but her private obscenity laws absolutely forbid such filthy words as "belly", or even "abdomen". We are therefore constantly bombarded by the cutesy-wutesy "tumpkin"s. From the ratio of cuteness to information, one gets the impression that her books were not really necessities: after seeing her husband write so many books, she gradually felt forced to write some herself.
In spite of everything, there are good passages in this book, and it must be admitted that it's much better than its sequel, Sunset House, and if the books are pretty bad, she herself does seem to have been an interesting person.
When I complained to the English lady in the bookstore about Perfume from Provence, she answered simply: "Of course. The English aristocracy don't know how to write."
Mitford, Nancy. Madame de Pompadour.
In The Sun King, Nancy Mitford demonstrated her capacity for turning the important into the trivial. In Madame de Pompadour she had less scope for displaying her remarkable talent, since Madame de Pompadour herself was considerably less important to history than Louis XIV; however, Miss Mitford does her best.
Madame de Pompadour has become known to history as the patroness of at least one generation of important painters. Miss Mitford does devote a few paragraphs here and there to the lady's importance for the visual arts, but only in the most general terms. Madame de Pompadour also has a reputation for intelligence and learning. Miss Mitford agrees, but does little to either elaborate or adduce evidence. It is possible that a woman of intelligence and sensitivity would casually sell herself in exchange for the title of the King's Mistress, but if true, the fact would at least be worthy of discussion and explanation. Miss Mitford apparently disagrees.
The book is at its best where it does deal with serious themes, such as Madame de Pompadour's political role and the long tail of the battle between the Jansenists and the Jesuits. (In the 1950s, it was still permitted to write about Madame de Pompadour's political role, and her failures, with complete honesty.) She also casts much light on the attitude toward religion of the libertines of the French court, a difficult subject for many of our world.
Martin, Russell. Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.
First Longitude and now this. The middle-browing of thought has produced a new genre of non-fiction which can indeed be told by its cover, or at least its binding. They are printed on paper much better than the usual, with carefully chosen typefaces and more than the usual whitespace between the lines. Often wider than the usual margins as well. It is this added space which seems to be the point of it all. We'll take an article from the culture section of Time or Newsweek and use a bicycle pump to expand it into a book.
The size is not the problem, though. Neither is the corresponding lack of content the only problem. The problem is that the journalists who write these books don't know their native language very well, and the reader often finds himself wondering whether they know much about their subject.
From Beethoven's Hair: "He did his best to educate him too about the pleasures of amorous love." Amorous love? "The proffer young Michele de Rybel made to Kay and Marta Fremming in the summer of 1946 soon was accepted." "[The] remarkably white and fluid-filled convolutions of the brain were much deeper, wider and more numerous than the physicians would have expected them to be." And it would have been nice if someone had explained to Mr. Martin that 'focus' and "locus" are two different words with two different meanings.
As was to be expected by now, the book's blockbuster conclusion on the famous questions of Beethoven's health is based more on hidden assumption than on fact, with almost no evidence adduced.
Tuchman, Barbara W. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. Ballantine, 1992.
The March of Folly is different from Barbara Tuchman's other books. Its unity is provided only by a philosophical theme: the sections of the book are not united by time or place, or by personality, as in the best of her books. It doesn't seem to be too hard to use philosophical unity to involve the reader's emotions in a book of abstract philosophy, but in a book of narrative histories it doesn't really work.
The philosophical unity in question is closely bound to a technical if home-made definition of "folly", and that definition itself has problems. The author claims that to meet her definition of folly, a policy "must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight". She doesn't quite manage the "not merely by hindsight". In each case she gives details of an opposing view which was known at the time, but this hardly proves that the folly of the effective policy was known at the time: every policy has its opponents, and it is indeed hindsight which makes it clear that the position was "counter-productive".
Mrs. Tuchman's three major examples are all interesting, and some of her observations about the Vietnam war are original enough. She also manages to achieve an objectivity on matters relating to that war which few who lived through it can manage even today.
Kipling, Rudyard. Limits and Renewals.
Kipling's reputation certainly has its ups and downs, but he still appears in most readers' eyes as the author of variously quaint and politically offensive Victorian fiction connected with India. In this collection of stories, one of his last books, Kipling is aggressively modern. Only one story is set in India, with a child as the central figure. In several others, the author consciously plays up technology as an element in the story.
In style and ambience as well as in the plot and its props, Kipling seems to be trying hard to belong to the post-War generation - the Other War, of course), but he only partly succeeds. His world is still exclusively male, which will make it hard for many modern readers, whose sensibilities weren't shaped in the trenches, to understand. His language is even more diffuse than it was in Victoria's India; sometimes the sentence structure is so flaccid as to make the content hard to decipher.
For some strange reason, his best stories are the stories centering around medical men which approach science fiction. The other near-science-fiction stories in the collection are also good, as are some very different stories.
Each story is preceded by a poem and followed by another. The poems are most generously described as awful. Here, Kipling has obviously lost his touch.
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Nochlin, Linda and Garb, Tamar, eds. The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
The articles in The Jew in the Text could have been exciting. There is enough to write about the image of Swann or Proust as a Jew, or Sarah Bernhardt, or Leopold Bloom, or about the image of the Jew in the writings of Clemenceau or Sartre. But the editors are heavy-handed, doctrinaire, and altogether with-it, and have left their sign on every page.
Of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Almina Wertheimer:
"[T]he still life of slices of melon in the foreground underscores both the exoticism and the 'ripeness' and sexuality of the sitter."
"Pink often has maternal connotations, but it can also suggest the secret attractiveness of paternal authority, when it is imagined to be Jewish. The conjunction of sexuality and Judaism is also colored pink through references to Albertine...."
"I want to explore what might be called the transferential Jewishness of Ulysses, in which Jewishness and textuality do not simply compound or swap places, but themselves undergo processes of mutation that result from partial identifications, projections, and acknowledgments of the other that compromise the self-sufficiency of the self."
Quite literally, I read the word "trope" more in this book than I had read it in my entire life previously. Like physical inbreeding, academic inbreeding can be disastrous.
Maugham, W. Somerset. Cakes and Ale.
In his preface, Maugham explains that the frame story and the character Rosie had two different origins. The frame story may be an important contribution on the psychology of writing, but it has some serious problems in style. It manages to be prissy and coarse at once, which is not easy to do. There are simple errors in vocabulary, and the feeble attempts at Americanisms were not well researched. And there's at least one irrelevant cliche straight out of George Steiner's essay on pornography by the famous.
The character of Rosie is more successful. If you've met her, you'll know that Maugham succeeded in painting her with all of her contradictions. But he painted her in colors too, well, rosy. Her own degradation and the pain she causes don't come across. Novels of deceit and infidelity almost have to be depressing, unless one is lacking all feeling.
more not-so-good books. . .
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