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Is This Book Worth Getting?

A no-frills guide to the just-published nonfiction shelf.

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(1.) Poor People
By William T. Vollmann, Ecco
William Vollmann specializes in abjection, so it’s appropriate that his latest book (of many—the man is prodigious) is a travelogue-meditation on “poor people.” He takes the reader on a self-consciously unsentimental globe-trotting tour of the downtrodden he’s known. There are lots of footnotes and Agee-esque photos and meta-observations about the nature of his relationship to these poor people. He wants to know if they think they are poor. He wants to figure out just what are the objective and subjective qualifications that make someone poor. And you want to like this book, because in the end, it is sentimental, and sincere. Reading, and owning, this beautiful $30 hardcover volume would seem to say something about one’s willingness to confront the non-bourgeois. Vollmann captures this guilty, fascinated, divided consciousness nicely—but did he have to let us know that he’s perfectly capable of living on $100 a day?
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(2.) Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life
By John Sellers, Simon & Schuster
In a footnote on page 70, our writer admits “I’m lazy as hell.” He’s not kidding, and you won’t be amused—if you’ve hung in that long. Starting with his youthful fixations on Star Wars and Duran Duran, Sellers subjects his readers to a pop-culture inventory of his cluttered mind. There is no story, just a lot of overwriting and underthinking and sometimes worse. Describing his upbringing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he casually mentions the time “we toilet-papered a cripple’s house.” (Sorry, asshole, there’s no statute of limitations on behavior like that.) If you want to know about indie rock, read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. If you want to know about John Sellers, and we don’t recommend it, this is your book.
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(3.) Dog Years: A Memoir
By Mark Doty, HarperCollins
Marley & Me this book is not. Doty, a lyric poet, writes an elegy for his two late retriever mixes, one of whom may have saved him from suicidal thoughts on the Staten Island Ferry. Though his account of their decline is inevitably tinged with roseate nostalgia, he does his best to stay true to his declared antipathy to the sentimental. But he betrays his own caveat that pet stories can be as “fatally dull” as “the recitation of dreams.” The dogs frolic in the Provincetown surf, wobble along city sidewalks in their dotage, earn nicknames like Missy and The Everlasting Beyoncé. Doty is at his best generalizing—exploring the mirrorlike quality of a dog’s gaze or the inextricable duality of hope and despair. This is one of those rare memoirs that cry out for more rumination and fewer specifics.
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(4.) The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
By Tom Bissell, Pantheon
Wait—another Vietnam book? Remarkably, Bissell comes at the subject with a fresh perspective: His father is a vet, something that’s long haunted his pacifist son. (“At every meal Vietnam sat down, invisibly, with our families.”) Searching to answer questions both historical (Why were we in Vietnam?) and personal (Why is my dad the way he is?), Bissell journeyed to Vietnam with his father in 2003, retracing his tour of duty. Bissell’s portrait of the trip is a probing and poignant look at the complicated legacy of war—and often quite funny to boot. On scooters in Saigon: “Few Vietnamese wore helmets, and in many cases entire families (father, mother, two children) were riding on a single scooter. How better to shear away an entire branch of one’s family tree?”
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(5.) Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics
By Jennifer Baumgardner, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Poor bisexuals—they are the perennial malcontents on the Kinsey Scale, the ragtag group at the end of the gay-pride parade, occasionally eroticized but more often dismissed, disputed, or scorned. Baumgardner has had enough of all that. For her, sexual identity is about more than whom you’re sleeping with in any given year. You can be (opposite-sex) married and bisexual and not have one thing invalidate the other. Right on. But what makes her book a wee-bit frustrating (apart from the fact that it doesn’t, pace one of her blurbers, read remotely like a novel) is that it’s a book at all. A nice old magazine essay—with just a few personal anecdotes, please, and a little lighter on the Ani DiFranco and Anne Heche—probably would have done the trick.
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(6.) Sweet: An Eight-Ball Odyssey
By Heather Byer Riverhead Books
Nice-girl-from-the-Midwest Heather Byer moves to New York, gets a monotonous job working for an egomaniacal boss, feels her soul dying, and starts playing pool to escape. It goes from hobby to obsession, and soon she is playing on a team out of an East Village dive, sleeping with a teammate, and embarking on a fairly predictable Journey of Self-Discovery. The book clips along when she’s observing characters and painting scenes (another team’s captain is “a loud, furious woman … with a mop of purple dreadlocks and an enormous ass that makes her look as if she’s wearing a futon”) but slows to a trudge during lengthy game descriptions and chapters (like one on the roots of the game) that seem wooden and obligatory.
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