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Review-a-Day

Tuesday, August 30th


 

Juvenilia (Yale Series of Younger Poets #104) by Ken Chen

Nihilistic Joy

A review by William La Ganza

The photo on the cover of Juvenilia is a still from a movie directed by Wong Kar-Wai. It shows a man with his back to the viewer, walking away down a muddy road lined with palm trees. The man in his tropical Chinese landscape stands in contrast to the title, Juvenilia, which evokes childhood toys, as well as Yale, with its clipped lawns. Yet the man's clothes are Western; in Juvenilia, Ken Chen looks at the past as a contemporary American inhabited by ancestors and images from China and Taiwan, by moods and voices, and their expression both free and constrained.

On the surface there is play, like the title of the first poem, "My Father and My Mother Decide My Future and How Could We Forget Wang Wei?" This title is ironical and cheeky: Wang Wei, an ancestral patriarch, can never be forgotten. Humour seems to be a way of coping with the obligations toward parents and grandparents: "My grandfather is packing up his organs" we are told, invited to laugh at the dead old man's expense...



Specimen Days: A Novel by Michael Cunningham

Same Old, Same Old

A review by Deborah Friedell

Walt Whitman pronounced his autobiography, Specimen Days, to be "the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed." Do the adjectives fit Michael Cunningham's new book, also titled Specimen Days? Fragmentary it certainly is. The book is pointedly subtitled "a novel," but it is really three distinct novellas, set approximately a hundred years apart, in the styles of a Victorian ghost story, a contemporary police procedural, and a futuristic science-fiction episode. As a gesture toward formal unification, each contains a man (or android) called Simon, a boy called Lucas or Luke, and ...



Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael Oren

How America Met the Mideast

A review by Robert Kagan

We often hear that Americans know little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns. So when a brilliant, lucid historian such as Michael B. Oren does bring the past back to life for us, revealing both what has changed and what has stayed the same, it is a shaft of light in a dark sky.

Today, the conventional view is that George W. Bush took the...



The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

Oh, How Sweet it Was!

A review by Chuck Leddy

Bill Bryson is such a funny and evocative writer that he can transform the least promising material into something memorably hilarious. He's written a memoir about his 1950s boyhood in Des Moines, Iowa, that begins by warning us that "what follows isn't terribly eventful" and apologetically concludes "No one died. Nothing ever went seriously wrong." In a typical moment, Bryson describes a school field trip to the museum of the Iowa State Historical Society "where you discovered that not a great deal had ever happened in Iowa; nothing at all if you excluded ice ages."

Yet Bryson's sardonic ...



Norman Parkinson Portraits in Fashion by Robin Muir

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

After four lackluster years at Westminster, Norman Parkinson started his career in 1931 as an apprentice in the studios of a staid court photographer. By the end of the decade he had revolutionized the look of fashion pictures. Models had previously appeared cold, static, and studied; Parkinson aimed to "unbolt their knees," and to suggest action and playfulness by taking "moving pictures with a still camera" -- nothing like his snap of Pamela Minchin in sunglasses and a 1939 Fortnum and Mason swimsuit, leaping arms outstretched in front of the breakwaters on the Isle of Wight, had ever been...



When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent Into Power and Influence by Connie Bruck

The most hated man in Hollywood

A review by Heather Havrilesky

There's a particular flavor of Hollywood bluster that's easy to spot, even from a few yards away. Whether it's a fledgling producer, a development executive on the rise, or a hot young agent, they share a clean, self-consciously polished look, an exaggerated, overconfident swagger, and a smirk that suggests that they're only prepared to tolerate you long enough to figure out if you can help their career. Most relatively normal, unglamorous citizens of L.A. instinctively distrust these slick types, suspicious of their hunger for money and power and the allure of being somebody in a tangled...



People Life After Dark by Roxanne Lowit

Famous People, Photographed

A review by Adrienne Miller

Can you get, like, paid to go to parties? If so, I must look into this line of work. I mean, what else do the people in People, Roxanne Lowit's lush, gloriously produced (as are all books by this publisher), unputdownable book of photographs do exactly? Having one's picture taken at a party is obviously a big achievement in this particular world. In fact, having one's picture taken at a party seems to be the only achievement in this particular world. And no doubt about it, Lowit's subjects — actresses, actors, supermodels, countesses you've never heard of, drag queens and socialites...



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