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Book Review

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


Ten novels are covered this week, five of them in Gregory Cowles's Fiction Chronicle. You decide.

The Fugitive Wife, by Peter C Brown. A Minnesota farm wife leaves her husband for the Alaskan gold rush at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. "In the end, Brown's impressive debut is less about the search for gold than the search for self."

Whale Season, by H M Kelby. A writer of two high-minded novels about mercy and nuclear physics, takes  holiday in Hiaasen country. "By insistently dressing her story in empty religious imagery, from a resurrection to a vision of the Virgin Mary, she comes off as the good student who has finally ventured out to a frat party, only to spend all night talking about her favorite class.

Don't Tell Me The Truth About Love: Stories, by Dan Rhodes. A hit in England. "The 34-year-old Rhodes plainly has talent to burn, but in these stories he generates more smoke than fire. Considering his ample gifts, it's a shame to discover he's taken the book's title to heart.

Paradise Travel, by Jorge Franco (translated by Katherine Silver). An illegal alien from Columbia spends a year tracking down the girlfriend from whom he was separated on his first night in New York. The hero "never loses his faith in the mysterious, larcenous Reina or the power of his love for her. His purity and his tough-tender voice, ably preserved by Katherine Silver's translation, give Franco's novel its own kind of magic.

Year of Fire, by David H Lynn. Nineteen stories by the editor of the Kenyon Review. "Many of Lynn's characters are uncertain and adrift: secular, multiracial or just reliably tolerant, they have shed their labels and consequently have no clear sense of who they are until somebody asks them to change."

Of the remaining five, there's a revealing imbalance. The review of Strivers Row, the third installment of Kevin Baker's series, City of Fire, has everything: an author shot, an illustration, and four columns of type by - Pete Hammill. Clearly this historical novel about Harlem in the Forties, juxtaposing an imagined Malcolm X and a fictional pastor who contemplates "passing," is Important. For the most part, Mr Hamill summarizes the novel and then wraps things up with "a brave, honorable work, taking us into a vanished world that should be better known." The routine piety is anything but seductive. Nor did the review of Purity of Blood make want to read Arturo Pérez-Reverte's new novel, itself the second in a series of novels about the Spain of Philip IV (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), despite the author shot, illustration, and three columns of print - by Terrence Rafferty. There's a bit more analysis here, but there's also a lot of "real men, men's men, macho men." That's really too much stink.

This is hokum of an exceptionally high order - the masculine pathos of having done too much violence for too meager a reward - and for those of us susceptible to this particular strain of boys' book post-bellum tristesse, Purity of Blood is a wonderful, stirring entertainment.

On what appears to be the distaff side, Elizabeth Schmidt's two-column review of Elizabeth Nunez's Prospero's Daughter appears just inside the back cover of the Review, where the editors like to place books that are quirky enough to discourage all but the most determined readers. Prospero's Daughter retells the Bard's sublime story of shipwreck and deserted island in a way "that is inspired by Shakespeare, but not beholden to him. Ms Schmidt notes the apparently extensive library of fictions and criticisms inspired by The Tempest, but makes no effort to convey the flavor of the book. We're told that the Caliban figure is here at the center, and that the Prospero stand-in is a genuine madman. The review is a genuine dud.

Dana Spiotta's new novel, Eat the Document, is already in my pile, so I read Julia Scheeres's review without any expectation of guidance. It is a favorable review, criticizing only a "collage of viewpoints" (there are four principal characters, but only one fully-developed one). I am particularly eager to read Ms Spiotta's "glorious sendup of contemporary social and ecological activists with all their preening idealism and absurdity." I did, however, detect more than a trace of anti-Sixties impatience in Ms Sheeres's paragraphs.

Sharing the page is Ann Hodgman's review of Rattled, a novel by Debra Galant, who contributes to the New Jersey pages of The New York Times. I suppose the editors thought that the common theme of suburban antics justified short-shrifting Ms Spiotta's doubtlessly more serious novel. Rattled, according to Ms Hodgman, is long on plot but short on character - a failing that one often finds in novels by professionals fictionalizing their subjects.  

Tally: the boys are given lots of space in which to say that they like the other boys' writing, while the girls are given half the space to critique the other girls.


There is one very interesting-looking title in this week's review. Just one. It's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, by Matthew Stewart. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger tells us the very engaging fact that Mr Stewart, having cashed in nicely on a management consultant firm, has retired to pursue a life of contemplation. Spinoza publicly cast off the belief in an intervening Creator at a time when it was dangerous to do so; he was excommunicated by the Jewish community at Amsterdam. The younger Leibniz, according to Mr Steward, shared Spinoza's lack of faith but lacked the courage to profess it. His hedging is very much with us today. Ms Schillinger writes,

Spinoza's mighty Nature may have been God enough for Einstein, but it was not enough for Leibniz, and it doesn't satisfy the proponents of intelligent design or those who put service of God above service to man.

Nicely put! Thanks for the opportunity to assert, not for the first time, that putting the service of God above the service of man is a perversion of humanity.

As for the rest - do I have to? Assigning The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times, by Jeffrey Hart and Imposter: How George W Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, by Bruce Bartlett to George F Will for review will certainly fascinate those who, like the Kremlinologists of old, read the tea-leaves at the Times to decrypt its political leanings, but it does not make for a very interesting review. Mr Hart's book is "a relaxed amble," while "Sometimes Bartlett is a tad too robust." Quick! A tonic for the wilting Mr Will! One would have said that the reviewer was all too much at home in this territory to be fair and balanced about it.

My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope appears to be L Paul Bremer III's attempt to salvage his career from the imputation of incompetence. Dexter Filkins, a Baghdad correspondent for the Times, insists that the imputation can only be washed away by something much darker. Of Mr Bremer's assertion that he and General Richard Sanchez knew how desperately unmanned US forces were in Iraq, and that they asked for reinforcements that were denied, Mr Filkins writes,

By staying silent, Bremer ensured that there would be no public debate on the merits of deploying more American troops. By staying silent, he helped ensure that there would be little public discussion over the condition of the Iraqi security forces, whose quality he doubted. When his request for more troops was ignored, his silence helped ensure that the troops would never come.

A pox of L Paul Bremer III.

Jennifer Egan gets enough space (starting on the cover) to cannibalize Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia into a nice little essay of her own. Ms Gilbert's trip "was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write." This inspires me to plan in doing the same for my forthcoming A Year in the Seizième, if and when the blog book deal thing ever happens to me. Charisma - mine or that of Paris - will not be much of a topic, but I will grant Ms Egan's wish:

And while I wouldn't begrudge this massively talented writer a single iota of joy or peace, I found myself more interested, finally, in the awkward, unresolved stuff she must have chosen to leave out.

The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule, by Joanna Kavenna, is enthusiastically reviewed by Florence Williams, a contributing editor at Outside. How bored would I have to be to pick up this myth-inspired travelogue through the Northern Hemisphere's chilly and deserted wastes? I don't want to know. William T Vollmann's contribution to the Great Discoveries Series (published by WW Norton and Atlas Books), Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and "The Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, looks daunting in Dava Sobel's review, but then my regard for Ms Sobel is not particularly extensive. (I found Longitude, her book about John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, all husk and no germ.) Mr Vollmann, of whom I really hadn't heard much before he took the National Book Award for fiction last year, seems to be a dark writer from a sunny place. I suppose that I shall give Mr Vollmann a try. I picked up Europe Central at Shakespeare & Co and was nearly knocked down by its fussiness. I've read one of the Great Discoveries, Madison Smartt Bell's smashingly good Lavoisier in the Year One, and am working on David Leavitt's book about Alan Turing.

Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Way We Grieve, by Sandra M Gilbert, is, reviewer Thomas Lynch tells us, comparable to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking in "plumbing her own grief for what links it to the larger human predicament of death and mourning," but it is a much longer, and more extensively bibliographical book, weighing in at near six hundred pages. Mr Lynch agrees  with Ms Gilbert that the "closure" business is phooey, and he notes that memorial services have become "peculiarly cheerful." In my experience, mourning is not something that anyone does in the same way twice; each mourned loss is unique. As for Mr Lynch's salvo,

"Sex and the dead," William Butler Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear nearly 80 years ago, are the only two topics that "can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind."

I could not more emphatically disagree.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a truly sympathetic review of John McGahern's All Will Be Well: A Memoir, and that is no surprise. Mr McGahern is widely admired for his ability to bring Ireland palpably alive on the page, and Mr Klinkenborg shares his interest in the natural world.

For McGahern, daily rourtine is the root of our being, the arena of our noticing. It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness.

It is very agreeable to live in the country and to submit to those "episodic rhythms," especially if you're a writer. But for me the ontological glow doesn't glimmer until the bed has actually been made and the shopping unpacked. I always suspect men who write piously of housework that they don't really do enough of it to know what kind of a religion it really is.

Sally Satel, a physician attached to the American Enterprise Institute (more tea-leaves) begins her review of Harry Bruinius's Better for the All the World: The Secret Forced Sterilization and America's Quest for Racial Purity by pointing out that this history has not been secret for a very long time, if it ever was. It is, rather, a story that the Holocaust rendered deeply embarrassing. Just reading about it, however, is a useful reminder of how extensive and even progressive ideas of ethnic cleansing were at the turn of the last century. On the whole, Dr Satel prefers Daniel Kevles's "more substantial study" of 1985, In The Name of Eugenics.

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Better Friedan's Enduring Mystique," is a good assessment of Friedan's achievement, noting especially that her famous book had more in common with baleful social reports from the 1950s such as William Whyte's The Organization Man than it did with subsequent feminist writers. What prompted Friedan and Whyte and many others to write was the ghoulish lifelessness of "good living" in the postwar era. The essay is illustrated by a photograph of Friedan wearing the most peculiar dress. Did she often go in for the Mme Récamier look?


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As the author of "Rattled," I ask you not to simply rely on Ann Hodgman's dismissal of my characters or to conclude that I suffer from a widespread malady of journalists-turned-authors. I've had much more positive reviews in USA Today and the Boston Globe, just to name a couple.

Besides suburban antics, the two books might have been grouped together because they both involve animal liberators - which might suggest that my themes are not quite so frivolous. "Rattled" also deals with issues of suburban sprawl and the parenting arms race.

But thanks for pointing out that the female writers and reviewers are getting squeezed for space in the Times book review, and for pointing my attention to "Eat the Document," which sounds like a great read, and which in my excitement about my own review, I completely missed.

Ms Galant -

I've got the book in hand, and look forward to reading it!

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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