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Book Review

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


Don't miss Alexandra Jacobs's smart review of Jackie Collins's latest sashweight, Lovers & Players. It's very funny and all of a piece, and its best bits must be read in context. The only line that I could extract was the statement that Ms Collins "lives in Beverly Hills and continues to embody its moneyed, soulless 1980's ethos in perpetuity, as if pickled in a vat of Giorgio perfume." I don't mind that the Book Review deigns to notice Lovers & Players, so long as the writing is as biting as this. On the other end of the enthusiasm scale is Ben Marcus's encomium to Deborah Eisenberg's collection of stories, Twilight of the Superheroes. Mr Marcus succeeds without trying at making Ms Eisenberg's characters sound repellent and her stories unintelligible. Still wondering just what it was that Mr Marcus was trying to say in his noted anti-Franzen piece in Harper's last fall, I suppose that this review is to be read as part of a developing literary theory.

Pankaj Mishra favorable review of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss concludes with a bit of waffling.

This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need t agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

Vision or reality? Ms Desai apparently takes a grim view of globalization, multiculturalism, and other trends that writes such as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru extol. She sees them as merely furthering the humiliation of the less-than-fortunate. I'd have expected Mr Mishra, who has written highly nuanced fictional and nonfictional accounts of the West's impact on India, to take a clearer stand on Ms Desai's pessimism. Equally hard to assess is Dan Chiasson's favorable review of Justin Tussing's The Best People in the World. On the one hand, he finds that Mr Tussing is a virtuoso of factual description. On the other, he observes, "His characters try really hard to remember to notice small shifts in one another's moods ... but they're really much more interested in the aeronautical trade magazines strewn around the house or the proper way to make your own firecrackers." I seem to recall that Mr Tussing published a memorable story in The New Yorker in which, as in his new novel, an adolescent runs off with his high-school teacher; the story was evidently an excerpt from the novel. Mr Chiasson does not persuade me that I'll benefit from the longer version. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, by Ayelet Waldman, gets a good review from Chelsea Cain. Ms Cain reminds us that Ms Waldman has admitted - in the Book Review, no less - to loving her husband, writer Michael Chabon, more than she loves her children. She also claims that Ms Waldman has something "new and interesting" to say about "women, families and love." Too bad she labels it a work of "chick-lit."

The one novel that stands out this week thanks to a favorable review is Olympia Vernon's A Killing In This Town. Maud Casey doesn't say just when this Jim Crow-era novel is set, but perhaps that's not important. The graphically portrayed brutalization of independent-minded blacks by fledgling Klansmen sounds almost unreadable, but that is undoubtedly the reason why A Killing In This Town must be read.


For the most part, this week's nonfiction reviews make me want to crawl back into bed in search of an alternative to reading. I really do not see the point, for example, of either Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence, or Noah Feldman's full-age review.

In the long run, the only way to cut off the international jihadi movement at the root is for Muslins to conclude that their own religious tradition does not countenance the deviations of recent years.

What a startlingly unhelpful judgment! I begin to associate Mr Feldman with pious hopes. Gary J Bass likes Jonathan B Tucker's War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda, but the issue of toxic-gas stockpiles, while sobering-to-horrific, seems dependent on other problems that must be solved first, such as the accountability of office-holders generally and the presence of George W Bush in the White House in particular. No less appalling is the subject of Rebecca Lemov's World as Laboratory: Experiments With Mice, Mazes and Men. This grisly account of attempts to alter human behavior by "scientific" means is almost humorously stuffed with crackpot ideas. Not so crackpot, but just as heartless is David Brooks's  grand conservative inference.

What is nefarious is the assumption - and this is where the tradition Lemov describes is indeed very much alive - that in the most important realms of life, human beings respond in uniform ways to material stimuli. [Fair enough.] In this view, humans are not the authors of their own lives, or are not influenced by mystical and unknowable forces, which we call the soul. [Where are we going here?] This materialistic determinism undergirds the work of thousands of economists, wonks and social experts who believe that [Aha!] poverty can be understood primarily as material deprivation and has nothing to do with cultural or behavioral factors; who believe that education can be improved merely by pouring in more money, as if a child were a machine to be filled up with the right investments; who discount cultural explanations for why some societies thrive and some stagnate. [Ergo: abolish welfare and other support for culturally-driven layabouts, completely overlooking the damage done by slavery to that culture.]

This is why I call Mr Brooks "Foxy Dave." He's very clever and must be watched closely.

There are two books about British-American relations. In American Ally: Tony Blair and the War on Terror, Con Coughlin tries to explain his prime minister's seemingly self-destructive attachment to Bushist foreign policy; in Jonathan Freedland's view, Mr Coughlin does not succeed. German journalist Josef Joffe thinks somewhat better of Chris Patten's anti-neocon "cri de coeur," Cousins and Strangers: America, Britain, and Europe in a New Century. The author, Hong Kong's last British governor, is about as representative of the United Kingdom's establishment as one can be, and according to Mr Joffe he writes very well.

Patten's is also a brilliantly catty and nicely constructed text - so felicitous in its language and subtle in its jabs that one wishes for a bit more Oxbridge in America's top schools. If back in college they had been obliged to deliver two essays per week, American mandarins might sound more like Patten and less like PowerPoint. In Oxford, they teach you not only to write well but also to think beyond the talking points of the day, and this is why the standard prejudices of the Good European do not overwhelm his intelligence, erudition and wit.

Amen! Jim Holt finishes off his review of Darrin M McMahon's Happiness: A History with a pithy quote that also finishes off any desire to read the book in question. After summarizing Mr McMahon's disgruntled account of happiness through the ages, Mr Holt recalls a quotation the attribution of which seems, unfortunately, to have been garbled by an editor: "A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied." Indeed.

Let's hope that Karenna Gore Schiff has written more of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America that John F Kennedy wrote of Profiles in Courage. I expect she has. Alexandra Starr oddly sees fit to identify only five of Ms Schiff's subjects, and the only interesting thing that I learned from her review was that FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, and Mexican-American labor organizer Dolores Huerta both found it useful to project themselves maternally. I'm going to have to find about this book from some other source.

Curtis Sittenfeld's Essay, "You Hate Me, You Really Hate Me," is about the writer's visits to book clubs, something that more and more writers are doing. Surprise: she doesn't like it when readers hate the protagonist of her novel, Prep. "Such varied reactions make for lively debate, and I wouldn't want to stifle it, but I have no desire to be present for it, either." -There are apparently two recent novels with quasi-satirical book-club scenes, The Quality of Life Report, by Meghan Daum, and Little Children, by Tom Perrotta. Must keep my eyes out.


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