BOOKS
11/15/2010 11:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review Roundup: Rap, Eloise, Seabiscuit And Doughnuts

"Autobiography of Mark Twain" by Mark Twain
The American-Statesman

Twain was insistent never to write a coherent, chronological account of his life. At first he attempted fragments, particularly of his early life, but he never persisted; the editors of the current volume are too eager to give him credit for having had some master plan for chronological order in mind. Later, he turned to what might be called table-talk -- reminiscences of literary acquaintances and other friendships. Although his stated aim was to describe his relationships with ordinary people in the ordinary conduct of life, the older he got the more persistent was his preoccupation as America's literary lion, hobnobbing with the mighty.

"UNBROKEN: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption" by Laura Hillenbrand
The New York Times

The ideal way to read "Unbroken" would be with absolutely no knowledge of how Mr. Zamperini's life unfolded. Ms. Hillenbrand has written her book so breathlessly, and with such tight focus, that she makes it difficult to guess what will happen to him from one moment to the next, let alone how long he was able to survive under extreme duress. But blinders are for horses, not for readers of "Unbroken." So we must acknowledge the good news that Mr. Zamperini is now a snappy 93, and better able to promote this book than its author (who is often sidelined by her chronic fatigue syndrome).

"KAY THOMPSON: From 'Funny Face' to 'Eloise'" by Sam Irvin
The New York Times

That's a not-bad description, as it happens, of Sam Irvin's exhaustive new biography, "Kay Thompson: From 'Funny Face' to 'Eloise.' " It's a lot of hard work to read. Mr. Irvin tattoos every available surface with the minute details of each radio show, nightclub gig, talk-show appearance and vocal coaching job Thompson ever turned up for. It's packed with a lot of tra-la-la. Humor and joy? Not so much. They have strained and intermittent cameos at best.

"EDIBLE STORIES: A Novel in Sixteen Parts" by Mark Kurlansky
The New York Times

Mark Kurlansky is among our most intelligent, prolific and literate writers about food: not cooking, not restaurants, but food. "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" and "Salt: A World History" are both comprehensive, valuable and as entertaining as food nonfiction gets. And Kurlansky ranges even wider. He's written a popular history of the Basques, a book on baseball and one on European Jewry. "Edible Stories" is his third work of fiction.

"The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks
The Los Angeles Times

The Mind's Eye," a collection of essays on the ways in which we perceive the world (many of which have already appeared in some form, most notably in the New Yorker) is no different, introducing readers to a predictably unpredictable cast of characters: Lilian Kallir, a talented musician whose "musical alexia" (inability to read music) deepens into a devastating perceptual deficit; Patricia H., a gregarious art dealer whose stroke leaves her without language but still able to communicate; Howard Engel, a novelist who loses his ability to read but not his ability to write; Sue Barry, a neurobiologist whose sudden discovery of stereo vision radically alters the way she sees the world.

"Doughnuts" by Lara Ferroni
San Francisco Chronicle

Ferroni emphasizes the fun of making doughnuts at home. Before diving into recipes, she provides a section on basics, including handy tips such as using superfine sugar to more easily blend into the batter and making sure all ingredients are at room temperature for best results.

"Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet" by Jennifer Homans
San Francisco Chronicle

Because "Apollo's Angels" is an important addition to the literature on ballet: intellectually rigorous, beautifully written, brilliantly structured. Homans, a former professional ballet dancer with a doctorate in modern European history, rarely strays from the cultural historian's detached and deeply contextualizing perspective.

The Yale University Press "Anthology of Rap"
Wall Street Journal

Puffing the merits of 2 Live Crew's provocative 1989 single "Me So Horny" as being a parody, which is "one of the most venerated forms of art," and asserting that sampling "is just another word for intertextuality," Mr. Gates calls "The Anthology of Rap" "an essential contribution to our living literary tradition." This hardly comes as a surprise. Now that the academy venerates all manner of pop-culture study-- everything from "Muppet Magic: Jim Henson's Art" (U.C. Santa Cruz) to "Learning From YouTube" (Pitzer College)--the question isn't, "Why an Ivy-League certified anthology of rap lyrics?" But rather, "What took them so long?"