Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism

edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman

(Seal Press, $16.95) I don't really like going to

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Very Briefly Noted

Short reviews of books of shorts.

Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism

edited by Daisy Hernandez and Bushra Rehman

(Seal Press, $16.95) I don't really like going to therapy, but I do it anyway, because I can't stand the thought of burdening a friend—or anyone else who isn't charging me by the hour—with my personal neuroses. And it's not that I didn't find a couple of the essays in Colonize This! thought-provoking and intelligent; it's just that far too many of them left me feeling like I ought to be billing the writers' insurance companies for the time they spent, figuratively, on my couch. Furthermore, although the back cover text would have you believe that this is a timely collection of "long-overdue" and "impressive" first-person accounts, the truth is that clich鳠abound. My misgivings with much of Colonize This! are similar to my misgivings with both feminism and the general idea of publicly extolling one's personal attempt to transcend gender, ethnicity, and the proverbial dysfunctional family: The sooner one is able to nod one's head in the direction of the past and get on with the business of right now, the better. In short: Only if you own a "Girls Kick Ass" T-shirt. Laura Cassidy Down to a Soundless Sea

by Thomas Steinbeck

(Ballantine Books, $24.95) Like Lorian Hemingway, Thomas Steinbeck is poised to escape from the shadow of a famous father. His new short-story collection, Down to a Soundless Sea, is an uneven work that nevertheless reveals a sharp eye for historical and maritime detail. Steinbeck is at his best in the longer stories—short pieces like "The Night Guide" and "The Wool Gatherer" document the confrontation between man and the (super)natural without building up much dramatic momentum. In contrast, "Blind Luck" occupies enough space to really dig into the complexities of its protagonist and create an evocative account of life at sea in the late 1800s. While the contrast between Steinbeck's colloquial material and his elevated language proves somewhat jarring at times, history buffs and fans of adventure in the tradition of Herman Melville will doubtless enjoy this book. In short: More fun than shoveling coal. Neal Schindler Virgil Thompson: A Reader

edited by Richard Kostelanetz

(Routledge, $35) Composer and music critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) was the greatest master of the standard 500-word morning-after concert review that our country's ever had—and, considering both classical music and print journalism are dying (oh, hadn't you heard?), probably ever will have. This new sampling of his work includes such indispensable pieces as "The Paper," the chapter from Thomson's 1966 memoir describing his 14 years at the New York Herald Tribune during the golden age of newspapering, which makes arts criticism sound like the most stimulating, and even glamorous, career on earth—as well as Thomson's legendary first review for the Trib, from 1940, in which he described Beethoven's Egmont Overture as "a classic hors-d'oeuvre"; trashed Sibelius' Second Symphony ("vulgar, self-indulgent, and provincial beyond all description"); and slapped—hard—the august New York Philharmonic ("I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York's intellectual life"). Thomson simply told the truth about music—as it came to his keen, experienced ears—more vividly, concisely, and insightfully than anyone else ever has. In short: Musical common sense with uncommon panache. Gavin Borchert Trash: Stories

by Dorothy Allison

(Penguin Books, $13) Amidst the avalanche of mid-'90s memoirs, Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina stood out, a rough-hewn diamond in a pile of literary cubic zirconium. The author's raw, powerful voice, which she used to such effect when telling her own story of growing up dirt poor and monstrously abused in the deep South, still resonates in the new paperback edition of the decades-old Trash. Unfortunately, though, the collection—aside from a new introduction and the previously unpublished "Compassion"—either retreads many of Carolina's plot points (it prefigures it, after all) or follows the somewhat less absorbing trail of her many damaging and damaged love affairs with women. The stories in which she confronts and explores her self-proclaimed "white trash" past still ring truer and richer than anything else Allison has produced; when the subject turns to her sexuality, the thoughts are compelling but uncomfortably infused with melodrama. In short: Half-recycled, but still no garbage. Leah Greenblatt Theater of War

by Lewis Lapham

(The New Press, $22.95) Harper's editor Lewis Lapham tackles a messy subject in a tidy, erudite package: America and its wars are covered in 13 essays and an introduction drawn from his magazine columns. From his New York perch, the worldly, sharp-eyed essayist follows America's decline from post-WWII superpower to a post-9/11 nation whose leaders have declared a permanent "jihad" against the world. Chapters such as "Caesar's Wives" and "The American Rome" typify the book's decline-and-fall flavor as Lapham critiques our misguided dreams of empire and helps us make sense of how we got from the League of Nations to the Bush Doctrine. He's witty and sophisticated, but riffing from a first-class deck chair on the Titanic. Civilized company, but a lifeboat might be more practical. In short: Elegant and eloquent case for a "regime change" in Washington, D.C. Knute Berger The Vintage Book of War Fiction

edited by Sebastian Faulks and Jorg Hensgen

($14, Vintage Books) While packed impressively with novel excerpts and short fiction written by an international team of literary hotshots—Heller, Hemingway, Heinrich B�-the most alive and urgent selection in this anthology is Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story." With his trademark theme (Vietnam) and his trademark style (casual, rhythmic, and unconventional), O'Brien leads by examples both direct and subtle. In flip-flopping masterfully between "true" war stories and his narrator's ideas on such things, O'Brien illuminates the paradox of war and the paradox of telling its tales. And then in one economical sentence, O'Brien nails what it is that makes any story—war, love, or otherwise—fall on its face or transcend the typed page: "A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." In short: Go with your gut. Laura Cassidy How to Be Alone: Essays

by Jonathan Franzen

(Farrar Straus & Giroux, $24) Far more Americans know The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen as the guy who rebuffed Oprah than as a gifted—if not important—novelist, a fact Franzen and the serious reader find deplorable. What it means to be a reader or a writer in this climate (it means that you're an outsider, damn it) are Franzen's primary concerns in How to Be Alone. The collection's centerpiece, "Why Bother?," is a tortured, hand-wringing manifesto he wrote in 1996; Franzen distances himself from it a bit in the foreword by noting what an "angry and theory minded person" he once was, but stops far short of disavowal. However conflicted about it, Franzen is an elitist (see his post-Oprah-fray essay "Meet Me in St. Louis"): Whether discussing the state of American letters, the Chicago postal system, or Alzheimer's, Franzen approaches his subjects as grave intellectual challenges. (On Amazon.com, the bulk of the negative reader reviews of The Corrections cite an overuse of "big words.") As engaging as he can be, Franzen's tone sometimes makes Alone pure tonic—good for you but not especially tasty. In short: Not The Corrections, which was smart and fun. Paul Fontana Dogwalker

by Arthur Bradford

(Vintage Books, $11) Written entirely in the first person, the 14 stories in Dogwalker feel as if they might have actually happened—except that they couldn't have, because they each contain an element of the downright bizarre. In Arthur Bradford's stories, the supernatural flirts so closely with the mundane that we lose the boundary between truth and fiction, and frankly, we don't care to reclaim it, not once we're immersed in his fantastical, exquisitely understated tales. Most are trim (the longest is 27 pages), told in that simple, first-person narrative—almost childlike in its tone and delivery, but so affecting as to betray Bradford as seasoned, skilled, and perceptive. The collection's title and its textual preoccupation with canines is ironic considering its true subject is humanity. In short: Brilliant—read it. Katie Millbauer The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings

by William Gaddis

(Penguin Books, $14) William Gaddis is notorious for massive maze novels finished by the proud and the few. The Rush for Second Place collects his factual work: scanty speeches, aimless newspaper op-ed pieces, labored reviews, and whorish corporate writing. As earnest scholar Joseph Tabbi tells us, Gaddis would "ghostwrite articles for a dentist in exchange for root canals." I would prefer root canals to reading Gaddis. The only substantial piece is the title essay from Harper's, a rant about failure in American history. It reads like Lewis Lapham running on three times as much beer, or Michael Moore with his sense of humor surgically removed. Tabbi mocks an IBM supervisor who said a Gaddis brochure was "perhaps too much an impenetrable mess." What is truly impressive is the entire absence of any organizing principle in Gaddis' thought and his awesome ability to pack a universe of impenetrable mess into any work of prose, no matter how teensy. In short: Stale, opaque, pretentious, overrated. Tim Appelo The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage

edited by Cathi Hanauer

(William Morrow, $23.95) Written by and for women who are prone, for the most part, to selecting mates who slough off their dish-doing duties shortly after the act of consummation, Bitch in the House makes for perfect book-club fodder. If only Oprah were still in the business. Because of the fact that the, um, bitches included in this collection write for publications like The New Yorker and produce works of fiction and nonfiction that go on to win big awards, much of Bitch is entertaining, swift, and intelligent. All of that said, I'm not sure that the message is necessarily important. Yes, we're angry. Some of us more so than others. Some of us more so at particular times of the month than others. Some of us with more reason, some of us with less. Some of us find comfort in sisterhood and bitchiness, and some of us—quite plainly—don't. In short: I suppose this makes me the bitch. Laura Cassidy The Best American Travel Writing

edited by Frances Mayes and Jason Wilson

(Houghton Mifflin, $27.50) If this is the best travel writing America has to offer, I'm leaving the country. Guest edited by Under the Tuscan Sun author Frances Mayes, this anthology supports why I ritually dispose of Sunday newspaper travel sections without reading them: Travel writing—like food writing or film criticism—is a self-marginalizing ghetto for bad writers. The willingness to subject oneself to the sands of the Sahara—like the willingness to eat escargot or endure Adam Sandler—should not be confused with literary merit. So we have the capital-T Travelers in search of themselves in Spain, in Borneo, in the Sahara—again with the Sahara, always the Sahara—and so forth. For relief, we get P.J. O'Rourke in search of a scotch in Israel during Passover. For reheated leftovers, we get not one but three Sept. 11 stories (how is this travel? Old news travels fast?). Mainly there's just this insufferable, stuffy seriousness to the writing (the two welcome exceptions being David Sedaris on airport hell and William Booth on road tripping with your mother). Does it have to be this way? Here's my travel advisory: Avoid Tuscany. That sun seems to have rotted someone's brain. In short: Stay home; read something else. Brian Miller

 
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