Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of October 22nd, 2007

Bob Drogin has achieved the unlikely feat of making the intelligence blunder that led to the invasion of Iraq into a gripping spy story. Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War (Random House, $26.95) is a work of investigative journalism, a factual account of the toxic disinformation spread by “Curveball,” the C.I.A. code name for an Iraqi chemical engineer who sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. Curveball has never admitted to fabricating his tale of mobile germ weapons labs—the ones President Bush cited in his 2003 State of the Union address—and it wasn’t until May of 2004 that the C.I.A. formally disowned the “intelligence” Curveball provided. Mr. Drogin’s story line is a “cascade of tragic misjudgments and mistakes,” but he doesn’t scold or lecture or keel over from shock. He does what a good reporter must: bring the story to life.

Who’s in? Who’s out? The urge to draw up a list of great writers or of best books should always be resisted: It’s a silly game and a troubling sign of cultural anxiety. And always resist, also, the urge to make sweeping statements—the exception is just waiting to prove you wrong. Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95) is both a fine collection of short, admiring essays (selected and edited by Joseph Epstein) and a beautiful object, thanks to a profusion of bold wood engravings by Barry Moser. Skip the idiocy of Mr. Epstein’s introduction (“twenty-five seemed roughly the right number—less would have been too excluding, more would perhaps have opened the gates too widely”), and plunge straight into David Bromwich’s stately acknowledgement of Dr. Johnson’s encyclopedic talent, Elizabeth Lowry’s shrewd appraisal of Joseph Conrad, or John Gross’ love letter to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here’s Hilary Mantel marking the distinction between Jane Austen and her legion of imitators: “There is ersatz Jane and there is Jane on the page, acid, crisp, and smart: Jane more short than sweet, with her spiteful eye, her cutting economy of phrase, her gravity concealed by grace.”

First published in 2002 and now at last available in paperback, Thomas Bender’s The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea (NYU, $18.95) doesn’t aspire to be the last word on the character of our metropolitan culture. On the contrary—Mr. Bender, a professor at N.Y.U., has assembled a loose confederation of 14 essays that point in more or less the same direction: “New York refuses a single logic, and it declines any notion of completeness.”