BOOKS
11/22/2010 01:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review Roundup: Rockefellers, Steve Martin, Jay Leno And More

"The New Yorker Stories" By Ann Beattie
The New York Times

And on Beattie goes, publishing one wry story after another in the welcoming pages of The New Yorker (three stories in 1974, five in 1975, four in 1976, and so on); she becomes so intimately associated with the magazine that people begin to talk of a New Yorker school of short fiction, with her as its exemplar. Characters and situations we have come to think of as Beattiesque keep arriving on stage.

"OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word" by Allan Metcalf
The New York Times

You can still find people arguing online that OK derives from Choctaw or from Andrew Jackson's bad spelling, but Metcalf duly relies upon the dust-settling scholarship of Allen Walker Read, whose extensive reading in 19th-century newspapers established that the first use of OK in print, in The Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, was a joke: "o.k. -- all correct." Such misspelling-based abbreviations were a fad. An earlier effort, "o.w.," for "oll wright," failed to catch on, whereas OK has gone globally viral. Even before OK became a fixture on computer screens, "okay" leapt readily to lips around the world.

"The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy" by Bill Carter
New Yorker

And yet men have always gone to war over late night. The "Tonight Show" is like the Tudor dynasty--from the beginning, nothing but succession troubles. The man who made it all matter--for Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien--was Johnny Carson. Carson had himself replaced a television legend, Jack Paar. In its earliest incarnations, "Tonight" had been routinely clobbered in its time slot by old movies, but in 1957 Paar took custody of the show and turned it into a reliable source of revenue for NBC. Carson's bona fides were somewhat sketchy. His own variety program, "The Johnny Carson Show," had been cancelled, after a single season, in 1956. When NBC offered him "Tonight," in 1962, he was hosting a daytime quiz show on ABC called "Who Do You Trust?," a knockoff of Groucho Marx's long-running "You Bet Your Life."

"America's Medicis" by Suzanne Loebl
The Wall Street Journal

But as Suzanne Loebl rightly emphasizes in "America's Medicis," the Rockefellers' patronage has been notable not only for its generosity but also for its deliberativeness. By founding such diverse institutions as MoMA, Colonial Williamsburg, the Cloisters, Riverside Church and the Asia Society--as well as by commissioning the distinguished artworks that enliven the office complex at Rockefeller Center--various members of the family have been guided by a perception that a moral responsibility comes with the possession of great wealth.

"An Object of Beauty" by Steve Martin
The Wall Street Journal

How disappointing, then, to note that voice and character have become obstacles for Mr. Martin once again. "An Object of Beauty" is the tale of Lacey Yeager, an ambitious young woman navigating her way through the Manhattan art world. The novel's narrator is an old friend of Lacey's, an art critic named Daniel, who chronicles her rise to prominence from an entry-level cataloguing job in the basement of Sotheby's auction house.

"The Box" by Günter Grass
Slate

In his new book, the 83-year-old writer is still reckoning with the past. But this time he turns his attention to a different, and even more complicated, kind of accounting: the one that every parent owes to his children. This means exploring types of guilt and penance that are just as painful, if less sensational, than anything in Peeling the Onion: "Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened."

"Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" by Eugene Robinson
The Los Angeles Times

In his book "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America," Washington Post columnist and MSNBC commentator Eugene Robinson has finally come up with a resonant term for the black urban poor: Abandoned.

"Luka and the Fire of Life" by Salman Rushdie
The American-Statesman

Where there was a mild-mannered, Cold War, pre-video-game, traditionalist aspect to "Haroun," "Luka" is more fast-paced, apocalyptic, "Matrix" and video-game saturated. Haroun and his father seem to have strolled into their adventure, compared to the breakneck urgency of Luka's race against death, complete with computer game-like lives earned (to be shattered by assorted Magic World enemies preventing him from reaching the Fire of Life) and levels that register each threshold crossed.

"Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia" by Michael Korda
The New York Times

Calling Lawrence a hero means trotting out the Joseph Campbell archetypes, bringing up Napoleon, Ajax, Ulysses and Achilles, and using the word "hero" as often as possible. It means finding heroic implications in Lawrence's reading of William Morris's "Sigurd the Volsung," a "Victorian-Icelandic-Anglo-Saxon-German epic poem." But as "Hero" later acknowledges, Lawrence was much too complicated and self-contradictory to fit any one-word label. And if he has to be given one, in light of his ambivalent yet attention-seeking attitudes about being famous, it makes almost as much sense to simply call him a star.