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Book Review

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

We break from practice this weekend to begin with the reviews that face each other at the center of this weeks' Book Review. New York is very much the subject here, and, as is so often the case, the truth is stranger than the fiction. The fiction is Jay McInterney's The Good Life, reviewed by Paul Gray as unfavorably as one has come to expect. Poor Mr McInerney! Whether he's trapped in an Eighties Zeitgeist by his own sensibility or by the critics who won't let him live down is bad-boy party animal days, he still ought to have foreseen where bringing together his adulterous couple in a 9/11 soup kitchen at Bowling Green would land him. Here is the nub of Mr Gray's review.

Corinne and Luke apparently deserve attention because they move in circles that sometimes intersect with those of the famous, occasionally even those of the ultra-cool one-name variety. "Salman" cancels at the last minute from the Calloway dinner party. A director who does show up regales a "rapt" table with tales of "me and Marty and Peter and the gang" back in Hollywood in the 1970's. Corinne and Russell attend a book party at "Nan's" and "Gay's" townhouse. When Sasha McGavock requires a frock for a society benefit, "Oscar" provides.

Perhaps recognizing that readers able to fill in these last names don't add up to the sort of numbers that produce best sellers, McInerney gilds such glitter by throwing in a steady stream of brand names, arcane and familiar, to attract the demographic of inveterate shoppers.

Attorney Edward Hayes would probably not only be able to "fill in these last names" but claim to be on retainer from some of them. The celebrity defense attorney and rough diamond, immortalized by Tom Wolfe (who supplies an introduction) in The Bonfire of the Vanities, has enlisted Susan Lehman to patch together his memoirs, in Mouthpiece: A Life in - and Sometimes Just Outside - the Law. Former Book Review editor Charles McGrath gives Mouthpiece a jittery review. After summarizing some of Mr Hayes's more provocative opinions about how the world works, he writes,

Some of this may be slightly put on, to get a rise out of liberal, middle-class readers, but the disquieting thing about this otherwise engaging book is that it eventually suggests that the Hayesian philosophy might be more accurate than many liberal, middle-class readers would like to believe. That almost anybody can be bought is the apparent lesson of the book's most interesting section, which describes on of the few times when Hayes has found himself in over his head.

[That would be when he represented the estate of Andy Warhol.] In addition to sharing Manhattan topography, both books appear to cover really well-made suits, and neither review is a heavyweight. Now, back to normal.


In addition to The Good Life, six novels are reviewed this week. Two look interesting. White Ghost Girls, by Alice Greenway, is a spare novel set in Hong Kong during the Vietnam war that tells of the moral awakening of the daughter of a Time magazine photographer. Vendela Vida writes, "Greenway employs brevity and marmoreal prose, trusting the reader to fill in the relevant facts - something many first-time novelists lack the courage to do." In Company, Max Barry has written an unsparing novel set in Seattle. According to Douglas Coupland, it's a spot-on satire of soul-sucking cubicle life.

OK, we all know that corporate culture and jargon are easy targets, as are self-improvement programs and management systems. But it takes an accomplished social anthropologist from the schools of both Dilbert and Evelyn Waugh to make topics like outsourcing, mission statements and HR come alive, breathe fire and then vomit all over your in-basket.

The picture of Stephen Wright that is run twice, small- and medium-sized, in the Book Review shows him wearing a Yankees cap and three piercings. I understand that this is immaterial to his skill as a writer, but it's mighty off-putting. I read Meditations in Green years ago but have read nothing by Mr Wright since. The Amalgamation Polka, his new novel about a young man named Liberty who enlists on the Union side at the outbreak of the Civil War. Laura Miller's enthusiastic review celebrates Mr Wright's powerfully disorienting storytelling but leaves me feeling more than ever the truth of Susan Sontag's conceit of Manhattan as an ocean liner berthed at an American dock.

"Is it the climate," a British character asks of Liberty's countrymen, "some quickening agent in the air, sense you all mooning helplessly through the woods, scavenging for God in every tree, paradise behind every rock?" There's something absurd about conceiving of a nation in terms of a morality so prone to drastic reversals and inversions. For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads.

I am very tired of this sort of writing - of this kind of thinking. In another historical novel, Steven Heighton's Afterlands, we're taken on an ill-fated expedition to the North Pole in 1871. Bruce Barcott hails it as "magnificent."

Heighton extrapolates from historical accounts of the crew's six-and-a-half-month journey aboard the ice floe to create a sophisticated, densely-layered fictional exploration of survival, love, betrayal and the personal cost of history.

Which reminds me that I have got to read Moby-Dick.

Tom Shone reviews Utterly Monkey without mentioning that author Nick Laird is married to Zadie Smith. That's good. Even better, he faults Mr Laird for pursuing a high-octane plot (blowing up the Bank of England) when it is clear that the writer is "more at ease with the threat of violence than the thing itself." This novel carries a lot of personal warning flags - I try very hard to read nothing about the Irish Troubles, or about the difficulties that Northern Irishmen encounter in London. Utterly Monkey appears to be well-written, however, so perhaps I'll give it a try. What I will not try is Maile Meloy's A Family Daughter. As Jeff Giles, notes, Ms Meloy's first novel, Liars and Saints, was accorded gushing praise from the moment it appeared. You can read what I thought about it here - on the understanding that I probably wouldn't be so generous today. Mr Giles writes,

Despite Meloy's drab, if efficient prose - and I'd suggest there's a difference between good writing an the absence of bad writing - A Family Daughter veers perilously close to the soap-operatic at times.

Been there, &c.


The most serious review this week is Leon Wieseltier's critique of Daniel C Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; the piece also raises a serious question about the Book Review's editorial judgment. Mr Wieseltier's essay is eloquent, and it highlights at least one interesting weakness in Mr Dennett's deconstruction of the religious impulse; I'm grateful to have been able to read it. But perhaps the review would have seemed less inappropriate in The New Republic, where Mr Wieseltier is literary editor. I cannot see any constructive point in the Times' having assigned a book by an aggressive atheist to a writer who piously respects religious wisdom even if he does not quite believe in it. Predictably, Mr Wieseltier has nothing good to say about Breaking the Spell, and he says it very well.

Here is a passage from Breaking the Spell:

Like other animals, we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal. But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives. This fact does make us different. But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.

As Mr Wieseltier observes, it is unreasonable to look to natural science - the best method that we have so far of analyzing the world we live in - to explain our transcendence. If our transcendence is explicable in terms of natural science, it is per se not transcendence. It is clear that Mr Wieseltier and Mr Dennett do not understand "humanism" to be the same thing. In the present context, however, the disagreement doesn't mean very much. It can be meaningful to those who have read Breaking the Spell and considered its arguments, not as Mr Wieseltier picks them, but as Mr Dennett lays them out. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, far from serving the general reader as a helpful reviewer, Mr Wieseltier has been commissioned to discredit the book in a way that will prevent full consideration of its propositions. I don't mean that Mr Wieseltier ought to have written otherwise. I do mean that the Book Review ought not to have published it.

Kevin Baker praises the latest book about Abraham Lincoln. 

In Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, the British historian Richard Carwardine makes it refreshingly clear from his title on that he is more interested in Lincoln the politician. It's not that Lincoln's political abilities have escaped notice. Most recently, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in Team of Rivals, told the overdue story of how Lincoln, as president, was able to mold the oversize, contentious personalities in his cabinet into a remarkably effective unit. But Carwardine provides a more comprehensive study of how an essentially good man could gain and wield power, even in scoundrel time.

Mr Baker has no use, however, for Lincoln in The Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times, edited by David Herbert Donald and Harold Holzer. Mr Baker is amazed that the editors have contrived to omit the role played by the newspaper's founder, Henry J Raymond, in the notorious draft riots of 1863. (Raymond "stood down" the mob with Gatling guns position in the newsroom windows.)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age gets a largely favorable review from Francine du Plessix Gray. Ms Gray likes the Consuelo parts and thinks that the Alva parts are too long. It would have been nicer to have a book focused solely on the daughter, who was married off to the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 and left him twenty-five years later for the love of her life. 

Surmounting most obstacles through her innate intelligence and self-discipline, abandoning the harsh glitter of her life as a peer's wife for the pure gold of her happiness with a man she chose to love, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan left an ineffable legacy of style and grace that Stuart narrates with an elegance equal to her subject's.

Mother Alva, however, is more problematic, and what warrants her inclusion in the book is the progressive thinking that she instilled in her daughter. That she could regard marrying her daughter to a rather unprepossessing duke as "progressive" goes some way to explaining Ms Gray's judgment of her character: "quick-witted, endlessly self-publicizing and diabolically ambitious."

A far less functional parent-child relationship is the subject of Bernard Cooper's The Bill From My Father: A Memoir. As reviewer Norah Vincent suggests, "bill" may have a double meaning. First of all, it refers to the grotesque bill for two million dollars in payment of parental service rendered with which lawyer Edward Cooper presented his son. But it may also refer to the writer's unavoidable struggle to understand such a parent. But Ms Vincent doubtless unintentionally strikes this book from my list when she concludes,

The bond, though contentious, is inescapable, and in mapping its tortuous contours, Cooper has produced a nuanced, pained portrayal of how - and often how awkwardly - men love.

On the evidence of Ada Calhoun's review of A Plea for Eros: Essays, Siri Hustvedt is one of the most insufferable women on the planet. "Unfortunately, much of this book suggests a similar lack of engagement with the real world."

And Hustvedt's tales about her Norwegian-Lutheran childhood and New York adulthood have punch lines that don't so much land as waft down in a billow of gauze. Her clincher, about a drunken bum, has a familiar premise. He props himself up on his elbow for just one reason: he wants to tell her that he finds her beautiful.

There are five reviews in Tara McKelvey's Nonfiction Chronicle.

The Film Snob's Dictionary: An Essential Lexicon of Filmological Knowledge, by David Kamp with Lawrence Levi. Ms McKelvey primarily notes this treatise's terseness; both writers "have burnished the 28-word and under profile to a sheen." Sounds undernourishing.

Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, by Anna Politkovskaya and translated by Arch Tait. The reviewer hails the writer as "a master at depicting horror and suffering" and concludes, "The more Westerners know about Putin's Russia, the better. I'm afraid, however, that dismissing Vladimir Putin as a KGB thug is a dangerous underassessment.

I Hit It Under The Sheets: Growing Up With Radio, by Gerald Eshkenazi. So much for sportswriting:

Woody Allen (Radio Days) and Stanley Elkin (The Dick Gibson Show), among others, have mined this material. Yet Eshkenazi, who writes about sports for The New York Times, isn't in their league; his writing is flat, the book's structure is disjointed and he seems to have done surprisingly little research, relying instead on a static-y memory..."

¶ Confessions of a Wall Street Analyst: A True Story of Inside Information and Corruption in the Stock Market, by Dan Reingold with Jennifer Reingold. This revenge fantasy come true runs out of steam when its villain, Jack Grubman, resigns in disgrace from Smith Barney.

Time Bites: Views and Reviews, by Doris Lessing. What is this book doing in a roundup? Lessing is one of the great writers, and her nonfiction deserves less perfunctory treatment. It is hard to say just what Ms McKelvey thinks of the collection.

Finally, there are two sporting books this week. One of these days, I'm going to have to decide whether to continue covering reviews of books of which I can scarcely understand the existence. I'm told that some of the best prose in English is sportswriting, but this is not much different, to my mind, from praising the cinematography of an adult sex film. For the moment, I'll simply say that boxing historian Bert Randolph Sugar likes Barney Ross, Douglas Century's biography of a popular lightweight boxer who emerged from the Chicago ghetto in the late Twenties and whose career illuminates the diverse ethnic aspect of boxing prior to Joe Louis's reduction of the matter to black and white. As for John Feinstein's Last Dance: Behind the Scenes of the Final Four, weren't we just remarking on Joseph Nocera's rough review of the sportswriter's last book? Why yes, on 4 December! Jay Jennings doesn't think much of the new one, calling it "particularly shoddy" and suggesting that this be not only Mr Feinstein's last "Last" book but his last book period. Sports occupies the final-page Essay. Keith Gessen's title, "In Search of the Great American Hockey Novel," speaks for itself. Apparently, ice hockey is endearing in no small part because its fans tend toward the shambolic. 


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