Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of July 30th, 2007

If Wilfrid Sheed’s new book (see review page C18) rings your bell, here’s another, oddly similar title also out this month: Stefan Kanfer’s The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, $24.95). The gang’s all here—George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers—but the particular emphasis is on Broadway shows, with a couple of detours (Mr. Kanfer drops in on Yiddish theater and on Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who made Manhattan his home in the first decade of the 19th century). Mr. Kanfer is a journalist, a capable professional—but Wilfred Sheed is something else, something more precious: a writer with an artist’s flair.

Though handy and attractively designed, Jonathon Keats’ Control + Alt + Delete: A Dictionary of Cyberslang (The Lyons Press, $14.95) is notable mostly for its refreshing, techno-skeptic tone, which ranges from wry to sour. Consider his judgment on hard drives and RAM (“random access memory”): “[F]or truly long-term storage of detailed information (such as the instructions in the Egyptian Book of the Dead) papyrus outperforms both.” And Mr. Keats can scarcely conceal his contempt for the “digerati” who proclaim the wonders of the digital age: “They have advanced the idea, scarcely challenged today, that the ills of society are essentially technical problems, to be solved with cheaper computer power and/or greater collectivity. Whatever may happen to the planet, one thing the digerati understand is how to protect their own future.” I wonder if he truly enjoys his job as a columnist for Wired.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux is engaged in the noble work of keeping the late Leonard Michaels alive. The Collected Stories (FSG, $26) came out just last month, as did a reprint of Sylvia (FSG, $13), a slim autobiographical novel about Michaels’ disastrous first marriage. Sylvia spirals into tragedy against a vivid backdrop of bohemian Manhattan in the early 1960’s. Here’s the young husband—the worst is yet to come—at a breakfast counter in the Port Authority Terminal, where he used to catch the bus to his first teaching job: “Standing in the crowd of silent men, I hunched over my orange juice, careful not to spill it, the taste bright as its color; or I’d sip hot black coffee, cup in one hand, cigarette in the other. Nervous oppression lay in most faces. They had lived like this for years. For me, charged up on caffeine and nicotine, it was new and real, the hustle and crush of city action, the New York essence of it, the man’s place. Wallowing in my clumsy galoshes, smoking the first cigarette of my day I joined the solemn brotherhood of workers. I was happy.”

And then, a couple of years later, just after his wife’s suicide, he spends a night at his parents’ apartment on the Lower East Side: “From their balcony, I looked at the city. The buildings seemed bigger in their vast indifference to me, and weirdly menacing. Street noises in the freezing air were exquisitely sharp, as if the traffic were embattled, and kids running about in Seward Park were killing one another. The roar of an airplane gashed the sky. Everything came to me as sensations, not feelings. I had no feelings that I could name. I had no human feelings.”

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of July 30th, 2007