Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of December 10th, 2007

Joseph Conrad turned 150 on Dec. 3. I’d sing “Happy Birthday,” but Mistah Conrad—he dead. Goes to show that books last better than humans. Actually, there was something superhuman about Conrad, starting with the ever-astonishing fact that English was his third language (after Polish and French). He managed to bridge divides often thought unbridgeable: the merchant marine and London literary salons, 19th-century adventure tales and 20th-century modernism. He could do the urban jungle (The Secret Agent) and the jungle jungle (Lord Jim). He could be the scourge of racists, and a racist himself (if you’re foolish enough to swallow Chinua Achebe’s hokum about Heart of Darkness). And his famous manifesto (the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus) is still one of the best descriptions of the task facing “the worker in prose”: “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Conrad did that job as well as anyone born in the last century and a half—and he even offered his mesmerized readers a surprise bonus: “that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

SELF-PROCLAIMED “ROGUE travel writer” Chuck Thompson boasts that he’s “watched the travel world spin from more angles than most people know it has.” Smile When You’re Lying (Holt, $15) is his exposé of the travel business and the “pap” that passes for travel writing, “a small effort to correct the … industry’s bias against candor and honesty.” His weapons are wit, a well-oiled subversive reflex and a defiantly unbuttoned prose style. Here he is with a pal in Mexico, hiring a panga (that’s a skiff) piloted by Ernesto (the pangero) to ferry them to a surfer’s paradise: “Ernesto yanked the engine to life, manfully revved the throttle, flashed a wicked two-teeth-missing smile at the black exhaust filing the air, popped open a can of Tecate, sparked up a doobie, and offered us a hit. All before we’d cleared the marina. If there were any “No Wake in the Harbor” signs, we were moving way too fast to see them.”

A SLIM BOOK on a grim topic, Omer Bartov’s Erased (Princeton, $26.95) will never reach a wide audience. But anyone with Jewish relatives from Galicia—the southeastern part of Poland, much of which is now Ukraine—will read it with appalled fascination. Mr. Bartov, a professor of history at Brown, travels from town to town, from L’viv to Stryi (the small city where my father was born) to Ternopil, looking for traces of a vanished Jewish population, noting more often the sinister absence of those traces. He blames this erasure, mostly, on Ukraine’s nationalists, on their “urgent need to create a historical memory cleansed of Jewish life, fate, and genocide.” They’ve very nearly succeeded. Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: Week of December 10th, 2007