The Mural at the Waverly Inn: A Portrait of Greenwich Village Bohemians
Text By Dorothy Gallager
“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.
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.
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.
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach
By Meryl Gordon
Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages, $28
Picking up where Frances Kiernan’s biography of Brooke Astor, The Last Mrs. Astor, left off, Meryl Gordon’s Mrs. Astor Regrets tells the riveting—and depressing—story of the last days of New York City’s most beloved philanthropist. It’s a saga that can be summed up in tabloid headlines like “Astor Disaster,” “DA’s Kick in the Astor” and “Astor Will a $ham.” As Brooke Astor was living out the last years of her long life, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, those closest to her began to worry over her care and welfare, questioning the decisions and motives of her son Anthony Marshall, who oversaw her estate. Mr. Marshall’s son Philip ultimately built a case against his father, who was indicted on criminal charges related to his mother’s financial affairs. Ms. Gordon’s book doesn’t drop any bombs, but it will surely stand as the most comprehensive account of one of the most bizarre family sagas in the recent history of New York.
Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America
By Jay Parini
Doubleday, 320 pages, $24.95
Inspired by Melvyn Bragg’s Twelve Books That Changed the World (all 12 of which were written by British authors), Jay Parini had the good idea of doing something similar for America: In Promised Land, he guides us methodically from the 17th century (William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation) to the 20th (Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique), weighing the cultural impact of 13 seminal books with scholarly deliberation .
Of course, important, transformative books aren’t always books you want to read. Unless you’re expecting, no need to acquire a copy of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care; and at least one of Mr. Parini’s baker’s dozen (Mary Antin’s memoir, The Promised Land) has the musty odor of a book bound for deep obscurity. But some are newly relevant: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, which emerged from the crucible of the Depression, could be just the ticket now that history seems so keen to repeat itself; and the age of Obama cries out for a fresh look at W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.
“Have You Seen …?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films
By David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1,024 pages, $39.95
David Thomson published The Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975, and it’s been a mainstay ever since for any self-respecting cinephile. His new tome, Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, is a similarly encyclopedic look at films Mr. Thomson loves, finds interesting or absolutely hates (look out, Sound of Music!). Alphabetically arranged from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Zabriskie Point, it covers a chronological span from L’Arrosseur Arrosé—that’s 1895—to last year’s Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men.
Mr. Thomson is never shy about his opinions, and while you might disagree with some of his assertions (we’d like to have a long talk with him about Peter O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia), his affection and enthusiasm for movies is infectious. Though the book is far too giant (an entry per page) for subway or beach reading, it will rightfully earn a permanent spot up on the shelf next to The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, to be thumbed through as reference or a reminder of titles to add to the Netflix queue.
The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism
By Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead, 288 pages, $24.95
Ideally one would resist, when reviewing a book about walking, the urge to use adjectives such as peripatetic or perambulatory or, heaven forbid, pedestrian. And yet it’s difficult to summon more appropriate words for The Lost Art of Walking, a loose collection of thoughts and stories about moving through the world on two feet.
Mr. Nicholson is clearly an avid walker, importing from his native Britain an irresistible urge to roam. Along the way he touches on walking in film (see, e.g., Charlie Chaplin, John Travolta) and lingers on the world of competitive walking, whose denizens can cover dozens of miles a day. Mr. Nicholson also spends long chapters in both Los Angeles and New York; in the latter, walking is a “thrillingly dangerous activity”—more than 20 percent of all automobile-pedestrian encounters happen here.
In the end, the rambling, unfocused and somewhat itinerant philosophizing adds up to less than a book’s worth of material, something Mr. Nicholson seems to grasp: “You can dress it up any way you like,” he writes, “but walking remains resolutely simple, basic, analog.” A good reminder, that.
Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity
Edited by Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton & Co., 352 pages, $27.95
For Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Vanity Fair’s recently hired business writer Michael Lewis collects a dizzying array of articles, more than 50 pieces of journalism to review Wall Streets upheavals, from the crash of ’87 and pin-pricking of the Internet bubble to the current subprime mortgage disaster. Mr. Lewis, who made his name nearly 20 years ago with Liar’s Poker, a book based on his insider’s view as a former investment banker at Salomon Brothers, wrote seven of the articles in Panic himself, and there are also are entertaining selections from Dave Barry and Lester C. Thurow, picking through Wall Street’s wreckage. But readers looking to allay their financial anxiety won’t find much relief here. Most of the articles illustrate a familiar point: We keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. Mr. Lewis writes: “Financial panics have become almost commonplace: events that are meant to occur every few years. Could this be because the financial system was built on an idea that badly underestimates the risk of catastrophes—and so conspires with human nature to create them?” Seems like it!