« In the spirit | Main | And the First Annual Daily Blah-Blah Blah... »

Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

The Book Review is very thin, almost skimpy. Great, I thought. But I was wrong. The Book Review is skimpy because there are no advertisements. The issue contains the usual complement of reviews. I really must protest. Joe Queenan's Essay, "Wish List: No More Books!" certainly struck a nerve. And looking at the books reviewed, I had to wonder what sort of desolate, anti-seasonal state of mind the Book Review's editors wished to conjure for its readers.


Take fiction, for example. You can have it all, this week. Consider:

¶ John Barth's collection of three novellas, Where Three Roads Meet, which, according to Deborah Friedell, works best when Mr Barth writes least self-consciously, and which becomes "almost unreadable" when he waxes "experimental." Let's just go to the dentist instead.

¶ Equally airless sounds Gabriel Brownstein's The Man From Beyond, in which Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle spend some time on the Jersey shore arguing about spiritualism. They are upstaged, reviewer Jennifer Haigh complains, by a twenty-two year-old tabloid reporter called Molly Goodman. I read Mr Brownstein's last book, a collection of literary hommages entitled The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W, but found that I had nothing to say about it afterward. Mr Brownstein is far from the worst writer in the world, and if he could have his Barth modules (nodules?) extracted, he might even become a good one.

Rust and Bone - now, there's a Christmas title! Craig Davidson is the pseudonymous author of several horror novels, and you might think that he'd write straightforward prose, but, no; reviewer Lizzie Skurnick finds that "The writer in Davidson cannot get out of his characters' way."

In the title story, a boxer, unable to punch through ice fast enough to save his drowning nephew, destroys his right hand in a battery of increasingly violent fights. It's a fine setup, but Davidson subjects us, like his boxer's opponents, to the punishing blows of the symbolism until we're ready to scream.

¶ Finally, there's A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher. Ms Fisher has worked as a ranch hand and as a carpenter, Sally Eckhoff tells us, and in this first novel she has taken the story of her great-great-great-great-grandmother, Lucy Mitchell as the basis for a novel. Lucy Mitchell was taken by her second husband on a trek along the Oregon trail, and needless to say the experience was greatly unlike a spin on the Interstate. Ms Fisher hews too close to the facts for Ms Eckhoff's taste, however, and the reviewer found that she couldn't work up much enthusiasm for Lucy's romantic adventures. 

There's no harm in a historic novel whose scenery is more colorful than its characters, but as Lucy starts to fade from the page, we may be a little glad to see her go.

If there is a reason for presenting any of these books in a Review bearing a Christmas Day dateline, I don't want to know what it is.


¶ Just what I wanted for Christmas: to read about the presidential ambitions of Hillary Clinton as imagined by obsessive partisans! Spouses Dick Morris and Eileen McGann sex up their case against Hillary with the vision of a battle royal with Republican nominee Condoleezza Rice. Susan Estrich, on the other hand, seems wearily impatient with anyone who doubts that Hillary Clinton can not only win the next presidential election but go on to change the world. This is all such a waste of paper that I was initially titillated by Ada Calhoun's review of I'm No Saint: A Nasty Little Memoir of Loving and Leaving, by Elizabeth Hayt. But, no; "nasty" turns out to be exactly what Ms Hayt has written.

But what Sex and the City devotees want is not lusty honesty; it's Hayt's reassurance that it's cool to put up with abusive men if they'll bestow expensive gifts and that it's a sign of glamour, not snobbery, if you don't "do" public transportation.

A pox &c.

¶ Nor is there much seasonal jollity to be found in Thomas Powers' sober but sane review of The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right, by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. As someone who believes quite fervently that real progress will not begin in Iraq until the last American troops withdraw, I'm sorry that I don't have more common ground with Mr Powers, who points out the authors are not actually so much concerned about "the next attack" as they are in assessing how much further damage to our reputation in the Islamic world has been wrought by our Iraqi misadventure. Mr Powers also makes it clear that anyone who buys The Next Attack for the solace that a strategy for "getting it right" might afford is wasting money:

The magnitude of the problem is suggested by the fact that at this point two writers with as much experience as Benjamin and Simon don't really what to do next.

¶ Not only is John Updike's Still Looking: Essays on American Art is very much on my list, but I've just finished reviewer Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment. This is not the place to talk of either. But it was serendipitous to encounter Elizabeth Royte's qualified boost for Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl so soon after looking at all the Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans photographs that Mr Dyer writes about. Mr Dyer, an Englishman, never explicitly mentions the huge role that the Dust Bowl disaster had in shaping the American photographic tradition and, as a result, giving it a thrust that constantly criticizes the naiveté of American dreams. The Worst Hard Time is a tale of American denial that suggests that the strain of courage that brought Europeans to the New World can have its foolhardy side when it comes to ignoring Mother nature.

¶ About Harvey Pekar: why can I not stop wondering why he's famous when he doesn't illustrate his own strips? Ideally, the graphic novelist writes and draws, but where the labor is divided, I put the illustrator ahead of the writer. I don't see why Dean Haspiel, then, gets one line of praise in Dave Itzkoff's review of The Quitter, while the rest is devoted to a discussion of Cleveland's most famous misfit.

¶ The six books reviewed in Jacob Heilbrunn's Nonfiction Chronicle have as little in common as they have to do with Christmas. The miscellany is so various that I'm tempted to overlook it altogether, an inclination that I overcome only by imagining what Joe Queenan would say about receiving any of them.

Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Move Star, by Guess Who, with Eddie Muller. This is probably a must-read for Hollywood-studio history, of which I'm one. I have admired Mr Hunter ever since he revealed his capacity to play a bastard in Polyester.

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Vivian Gornick. A good book about Stanton, a bad book about loneliness.

Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, by Moisés Naim. "Hijacking" can't be the right word for "ripping-off." Worse, readers will encounter "a mass of supporting detail that at times will excite only the most wonkish nerds." The better book would have compared and contrasted international businesses and the infranational thieves who steal from them as significant threats to sovereign autonomy and lawfulness.

A World of Light, by Floyd Skloot. "These essays, while laudably free of false sentimentality, inadvertently commit the opposite sin of becoming almost wholly antiseptic." Never having heard of Mr Skloot, I feel that an effective argument on his behalf would have required more than a roundup review. I do understand, that a lukewarm review is better than none, and I hope that Mr Skloot can manage to be grateful for that.

Elephant's Edge: The Republicans as a Ruling Party, by Andrew J Taylor. "This book is the latest entry in a growing field..." Next.

Legends of Modernity: Essays and Letters from Occupied Poland, 1942-1943, by Czeslaw Milosz; translated by Madeline G Levine. Milosz was a great poet and a witness to freedom's superiority to power, and the contents of this book may indeed "form a remarkable testament to an uncaptive mind," but you can't tell it from the title, which suggests nothing so much a very long series of books to come. Writing that stretch all the way from one year to - the next? Applying the Queenan formula, you would bad-mouth this book even if you really liked it, for fear of being burdened by further installments.

Perhaps it's a mistake to ask for the Book Review to strike the Christmas note. The cover article, which begins in a cascade of print designed to suggest the light cast by the Star in the East that guided the Magi, may be concerned with Christianity, but its connection to Christmas is a last-minute thing, a matter of Jon Meacham' quoting like-minded sentiments from the religious John Cardinal Newman and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll. For the most part, "Tidings" is taken up with Rodney Starks's The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. This astonishing bit of claptrap hardly deserves such prominent attention from the Book Review. Mr Stark's opus apparently contrasts some very threadbare prejudices about "them" - the emphasis that non-Western faiths allegedly place on "mystification" - with the novel idea, no doubt gagging to philosophes past and present, that Christianity itself, far from partaking of such faults, has been the principal engine of Western superiority because of its commitment to reason. Mr Meacham, whose day job as the managing editor of Newsweek tells us nothing about his background in religious history, faults Mr Stark's book for rampant chauvinism and for a disinclination to consider the very unreasonable things that have been done in Christianity's name, but everything about the review presents The Victory of Reason as an Important Book. It was quite seasick-making to read.

In the last third of his piece, Mr Meacham turns to two other books, neither of which has much to do with Mr Stark's. Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America's Sacred Ground, a collection of essays edited by Barbara A McGraw and Jo Renee Formicola, sounds like a good, if possibly to academic and theoretical book. Mr Meacham highlights a contribution by Derek H Davis, "The Baptist Tradition of Religious Liberty," as a work of historical reflection that might well give pause to the highly politicized and rather intolerant religious right of today. Mr Meacham then turns to Prayer: A History, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, but without positively indicating whether the book is a greeting card or a something more serious.

Mr Queenan's Essay reminds me that what I want for Christmas, and not necessarily at Christmas, are recommendations, not books. The last book that I remember receiving as a gift was a devotional tract about Mother Teresa; you can imagine how long that stayed in the house. Mr Queenan manages to stud his complaint about unwanted books with plenty of shafts aimed at well-known titles, Angela's Ashes and The Tipping Point among them; it wouldn't be Joe Queenan writing if he didn't gore at least one of your sacred cows. Whatever your feelings about Dan Ackroyd - actor, musician, writer - you have to admit that you read Joe Queenan because of passages like the following one:

I do not avoid books like Accordion Man or Elwood's Blues merely because I believe that life is too short. Even if life were not too short, it would still be too short to read anything by Dan Ackroyd.

Not to mention (as Mr Queenan does) Hi-Ho Steverino! If you line up the titles that Mr Queenan regards with respect (such as Junichiro Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles) with the items on his "still too short" list, a distinction between readerly pleasure on the one hand and packaged information on the other will emerge.

Do you have a problem with gift books? My guess is that the closer you get to reading and writing for a living, the more highly differentiated your taste becomes, such that, aside from reading a few of the books that all the other reading and writing professionals are talking about, you don't require much outside input, and the harder it will be for others to hit upon books that you will want to read.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2