« No Comment | Main | Marvelous Party »

Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Of the five novels promoted today, I'm going to try to read Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury (translated from the Arabian by Humphrey Davies). Lorraine Adams calls it "a genuine masterwork" at the end of a review that supports that conclusion. She calls it a Sheherazade in reverse: as if believing that the longer he talks, the longer his comatose patient will live, a doctor relates "a swirl of stories" about the Palestinian exile that began with the foundation of Israel.

Julian Barnes's new novel, Arthur and George, gets a glowing review from Terrence Rafferty that nonetheless says "Stay Away" to me. Mr Barnes has taken up the odd story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's successful attempt to clear a half-Indian, half-English lawyer from false charges of - did I get this right? - livestock mutilation.

To clarify: Julian Barnes has written a deeply English novel, in the grand manner, about the sorts of existential questions the English on the whole prefer to leave to the French.

Julian Barnes is, to me, something like John Updike, a novelist whose non-fiction I much prefer.

There are two books after the aftershocks of colonial expropriation, Lisa Fugard's Skinner's Drift (South Africa) and Andrew McGahan's The White Earth (Australia). The former gets a somewhat better review from Allegra Goodman than the latter gets from Geoff Nicholson, but the story lines of both books appear to be unappealingly dismal. As does that of Anita Brookner's Leaving Home; Caryn James has the brass to come out and say that

a musty smell wafts from each new Brookner book, a stale whiff that arises partly because she has tweaked the same novel 232 times in 24 years, and largely because her shrinking-violet heroines live in a hermetic, increasingly unconvincing world.  

I'm not sure that I've read two Brookners, but I recall the "stale whiff" quite well.


We have two books about the Cold War. First, there's John Lewis Gaddis's The Cold War: A New History, which Michael Beschloss hails as the book to read on this fast-fading chronic crisis that deformed the minds of generations of American officials, many of them still in power. It may be more useful to read Edward Lansdale's Cold War, by Jonathan Nashel. Reviewer James Gibney sketches the strange career of this college dropout who, having averted a revolution in the Philippines, was deputed to do the same in Viet Nam, and points out that he was "one of the few Central Intelligence Agency operatives known to Americans before Congress investigated the agency in the mid-1970's." JFK apparently thought that Lansdale was "America's James Bond," revealing the immature adventure-story approach that this country's operatives have so often taken toward cloak-and-dagger work.

But however well documented, Nashel's effort to portray Lansdale as purely a creature of the cold war seems misleading, if not mistaken. Some two decades after Lansdale's death in 1987, the flawed assumptions that guided his thinking still strive. Just ask the American pundits and policy makers fond of calling people like the former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi the "George Washington of Iraq.

There are three books about important American figures whose eminence did not rise directly from politics. Louise W Knight's Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy is, in Alan Wolfe's view, a "bildung:

an account of how a person's character is formed. ... We know a great deal about Jane Addams the public figure. We know relatively little about how she made the transition from the 19th century to the 20th. In Knight's book, Jane Addams comes to life.

Michael D'Antonio's Hershey: Milton S Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams has a title that tells it all. Benjamin Cheever's review captures an interesting fact: the secret of making milk chocolate is skim milk and slow heating. This is interesting because Hershey planned his chocolate empire before discovering the secret; his Utopia, which is still with us, would have been just another American business disaster if researchers hadn't solved the problem as soon as they did. Hershey's is a rags-to-riches story that Mr D'Antonio is said to have told fairly: "It's the man he's after, not the god."

As for Richard Lyman Bushman's Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Walter Kirn writes that its author,

a retired Columbia history professor who also happens to be a practicing Mormon, has a tricky dual agenda, it turns out: to depict Smith both as the prophet he claimed to be and as the man of his times that he most certainly was.

and then concludes

For Bushman, the fact that his church continues to grow is proof that [Smith] was onto something big, though. For logicians, this is tantamount to arguing that Santa Claus probably exists because he gets millions of letters each year from children. But since logic played almost no part in Joseph Smith's life, it may be fitting that it's largely absent from this respectful biography.

Ana Marie Cox (more Wonkette!) doesn't think much better of Kate O'Beirne's Women Who Make the World Worse: And Hos Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Families, Military, Schools and Sports. I have to say, looking at that subtitle, that the patriarchal agenda couldn't be more clearly laid out, especially if one regards "schools and sports" as a unit, not two ill-wed institutions.

Indeed, it is O'Beirne's desire to demonize feminists in general, rather than naming names, that really disappoints. When she's not picking off the old and weak, she's aiming for the broad side of a barn.

The most interesting thing about Po Bronson's Web site is that it doesn't explain the writer's unusual first name, which seems custom-designed for the kind of writing that Mr Bronson turns out. Rather than discuss Alexandra Jacobs's unflattering review of Why Do I Love These People: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, I refer you to Mr Bronson's response to it. Oh, all right. Ms Jacobs, having noted the writer's resemblance to actor Richard Gere, asks, "Could it be that the author loves these people because they make him look like a sensitive journalist?"

Belinda Rathbone's The Guynd: A Scottish Journal tells the story of a privileged American's late marriage to a Scottish laird in his fifties. Bella Bathurst's review does not disclose the current state of this union; one suspects that the laird may have gone to his reward. Ms Bathurst does outline a book that seems just the ticket for my mother-in-law, who will appreciate all of the stately-home problems that Ms Rathbone encountered at the eponymous "large but decrepit" estate in Angus. (Hint: rhymes with "the wind").

Corey S Powell reviews Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. The problem with string theory - of which Mr Susskind is a founder - seems to be that instead of yielding a single model of physics, it yields about 10500. I hope it isn't facetious of me to acknowledge that I don't need that many reasons not to buy this book.

Finally, there is a book that, if I read it, will almost certainly make me explode. According to Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Hits Home, New York City is the big bad water thief that flooded small settlements in the Catskills and elsewhere. To which I roundly reply, Tough! I have not an iota of sympathy for rustics who cling to their cabins at the expense of the only thing that my city gets out of the rest of the United States (aside from much of its population): an excellent water supply. Jane Jacobs long ago persuaded me that cities ought to govern their hinterlands, not, as we do in this country now, the other way round. Anthony Swofford's review hits an unintended nail on the head:

A primitive wailing can be heard in these pages, and Pierson implores us to join her. Or else.

Or else right back to you.

Henry Alford's Essay is an amusing decoupage of some of the strange things for which authors have thanked their friends, relatives, editors and others in acknowledgments. Of the twenty-six works from which extracts were taken, I have read one, and I have another in my pile. I look forward to the inevitable "Acknowledgments" section that is as long as the text it accompanies.


TrackBack URL for this entry:


Why is the NYTBR so uninspired? It almost discourages reading.

Hey, Kate O'Beirne! Have you read "Men Who Make the World Worse: How the Patriarchal Agenda Is Threatening Our Survival and Souls Through Fear, Dominance, and War"?

Yeah, I've lost much interest in the NYT Book Review over the last few years too. It's one of the reasons I depend so heavily on the New York Review of Books.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2