Fall Books: A Literary Leafpile

books 0 Fall Books: A Literary LeafpileThe Mural at the Waverly Inn: A Portrait of Greenwich Village Bohemians
Text By Dorothy Gallager
Pantheon, $15.95

“The thing about a mural in a restaurant,” swooping-haired Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter writes in the introduction to The Mural at the Waverly Inn, “is that, in a way, it tells the story of the customers back to them.” Mr. Carter, who co-owns that haute-bohemian Bank Street bastion and commissioned its art from Edward Sorel, really means that a good restaurant mural tells the story that its customers want to hear while they’re forking down $55 plates of mac-and-cheese with truffles.

Mr. Sorel’s adoring, funny, nostalgic, autumn-colored, smoky (one pipe; one cigar; six cigarettes, not counting the full ashtray) mural tells a good story about old Greenwich Village, and so does this little accompanying book. Besides the image of Mabel Dodge’s bare rump, the real prize is what Mr. Sorel can do with a writer’s eyes. See Dreiser’s sour slits, Mailer’s self-loved baby blues, O’Neill’s pooh-poohing gape, the two-ton eyelids on beery Dylan Thomas and a 20-ton eyelid, hanging down like a velvet drape, on Truman Capote in profile.

 

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of The Baskervilles
By Pierre Bayard
Bloomsbury, 193 pages, $20

Fan fiction is usually written by Internet geeks, but French literary provocateur Pierre Bayard has taken it highbrow. In Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, Mr. Bayard retells Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, applying “Holmes’s own method but with more rigor.”

The author aspires to mischief, but his honors thesis stylings make it a grind. Consider this mouthful of nouns: “[Watson’s] ability to stimulate Holmes’s thinking is proportional to his fundamental miscomprehension of reality.” Such sentences are supposed to sound coolly analytical, detectivelike; instead they sound like a Wikipedia entry. “A fourth kind of clue is the written document.” Do you want to know what the fifth is?

Grandiosity weighs down the text, too. Mr. Bayard constantly reminds us that his challenge to “the official truth” is a big deal. “If we are diligent and resist the distractions of sensationalism …”—no thanks, M. le Professeur. We’ll take the sensationalism. And maybe the occasional literary device.

Glenna Goldis

 

The Journey
By H. G. Adler
Random House, 292 pages, $26

Written in London in 1950, published in German in 1962, and only now published in English, H. G. Adler’s novel The Journey attacks an impossible problem: How can the soul survive in the brutal world? Can it ever really know or touch the forces that dominate it? Adler passed through four different camps during the Second World War and lost his wife in Auschwitz; his study of Theresienstadt, based on notes he took while imprisoned there, became a foundational document of Holocaust studies. But in The Journey, although the book’s origins are clear, Adler mentions none of this by name; instead, by the use of an abstract story of familial dislocation and beautiful generalities (“Life is forbidden, something that never quite hits home, because it has not ceased to go on”), he attempts to portray the struggle of delicate humanity to come to grips with an evil that is, in the end, completely foreign to it.

—Will Heinrich

 

Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer
By Fred Kaplan
HarperCollins, 406 pages, $27.95

Biographer Fred Kaplan’s close reading of Lincoln’s personal letters and drafts brings a fresh perspective to one of the most mythologized figures in American history. He reveals that Lincoln the orator got his start as Lincoln the poet, the lover, the humorist. Lincoln the poet composed verses inspired by the sentimental lyricism of Robert Burns, but Lincoln the lover was, sadly, a genius only of self-resignation: He wrote to a friend that his wife-to-be, Mary Todd, “from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirty five or forty years,” inspired him to … ambivalence. As for Lincoln the 19th-century humorist, you’ll have to buy the book to find out. (Sample punch line: “You have to raise the hoops before you get the head in.”)

Damian Da Costa

 

Creative Capitalism: A Conversation With Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Other Economic Leaders
Edited by Michael Kinsley
Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26

Twelve years ago, Michael Kinsley reinvented the magazine, in the form of Slate. Now, he and the site’s original backer—Bill Gates—are attempting to reinvent capitalism, in the form of an ethic that leverages corporate assets in intelligent ways for the social good. And as would befit such an experiment, he’s doing it in a medium that also breaks convention. Rather than asking a fleet of A-list economists for self-contained essays, Mr. Kinsley invited them to participate in a Web-based exchange of ideas—and thereby, he confesses, “trick[ed] them into producing a book.”

The discussion itself is less than revolutionary, at least in the opening salvos. Some of the participants, such as Gary Becker and Richard Posner, retreat behind well-drawn lines of battle, while the likes of William Easterly throw bombs at Mr. Gates for his “implausible” and “illusory” approach. But as this serialized debate evolves, the ranks loosen up, and the debate turns from the why of incentivizing good corporate behavior to the how. Sometimes, the antagonists even concede arguments to those they previously opposed—for this book, anyway, the combatants have at least sat down for lunch.

Lydia DePillis