« 16 Blocks | Main | Oscar Note »

Book Review

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

Before tackling this week's Review, I'd like to direct your attention to a comment at the bottom of last week's piece. Debra Galant, author of Rattled, suggested that I give her book another chance, and I yielded at once. I have already begun Rattled, which I bought yesterday. So far, it's very entertaining. Of the status-obsessed "heroine," Heather Peters, Ms Galant wickedly writes, "All she wanted was a fair advantage." If you were reading in a hurry, you'd miss it.

All right; fun's over.

Fiction

We'll begin with Elsa Dixler's Fiction Chronicle. There are, as usual, five novels in the roundup.

¶ Have you discovered Adrian Mole? I read the first of Sue Townsend's Mole Diaries, and found its account of desperate adolescence pretty funny, but the sequels did not amuse. I could never make up my mind how I felt about the grown-up Adrian - except that I certainly didn't like him. Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction may nonetheless amuse readers looking for a "story that gently tweaks many aspects of life in contemporary Britain."

¶ Of Christine Conrad's Mademoiselle Benoir, Ms Dixler writes, "A Year in Provence" meets Le Mariage in this epistolary first novel." Sounds like fun, provided it's well-written. Ms Dixler doesn't say, but she casts Aston Kutcher and Catherine Deneuve in the romantic leads.

¶ For anyone interested in Maoist-bedeviled Nepal, Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts: Stories is a must. Mr Upadhyay's two previous books have garnered comparisons to Chekhov. Ms Dixler makes this book sound strong enough to merit better treatment than a roundup.

¶ Ms Dixler is disappointed by Edeet Ravel's A Wall of Light, comparing it unfavorably to Ms Ravel's previous novel. She particularly dislikes one of the principal characters, Sonya Vronsky. I suspect from experience that what Ms Dixler really objects to - and this is my surmise - is that the author wants the reader to sympathize with a difficult character but doesn't pull it off.

Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War, by Assia Djebar (Translated by Majolijn de Jager), has a deadly subtitle, but it is in fact a relic of the war, having been published in France in 1962. Set on a day in May, 1956 in an Algerian town, Children is about a diverse group of inhabitants, each of whom acts as a prism through which the war passes. Ms Dixler pronounces the translation "lovely."

As for full-dress reviews, we have Allegra Goodman's Intuition, a novel about a scientific breakthrough that may or may not have been fudged. Novelist Sue Halpern goes to enormous lengths in the attempt to avoid giving it a good review while not appearing to give it a bad one. In vain.

It has been Goodman's particular talent to create quirky, poignant characters and put them in deeply affecting relationships, and these relationships carry her novels. Intuition, by contrast, is full of querulous people whose emotional tics stand in for personality.

Nor is NYRB staffer Lauren Collins crazy about Kaye Gibbons's The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster. No matter how hard I try, I can't remember a thing about Ellen Foster; I'm not even sure that I read it. Well, it has been nearly twenty years. Ms Collins feels that the author has not aged her character, from 11 to 15, in a credible way. Patrick McGrath is perfectly lethal about Kevin Brockheimer's The Brief History of the Dead, outlining the "perfectly good idea" at the heart of the novel - there is a city populated by dead people who are still remembered by living ones; as the population swells with newcomers and dwindles at the other end, the inhabitants surmise that something is very wrong on Planet Earth. There is also a story about a scientist named Laura who's out on a sledge on Antarctica.

By this point, suspense should be mountain as Laura battles across the polar ice. But this presupposes that we have been made to care about anybody in the book, particularly Laura and those who live in her memory. We have not. ...

Nobody in the novel is remotely interesting, even in their responses to their extraordinary predicaments.

Ouch. Finally, there is Liesl Schillinger's page about Gail Godwin. Ms Godwin has just published her umpteenth novel, alongside three years' worth of youthful journals that cover the same period in this highly autobiographical novelist's life. Ms Schillinger thinks that The Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963, is a better read than Queen of the Underworld, simply because

they don't try to impose a false structure on the harum-scarum adventures of a restless young woman embarking on an uncharted life. Instead, as cities and continents and men change, the entries are borne along by a two-stroke engine that chugs like a train: the young Godwin's fierce conviction that she is meant to write fiction and her desire to distract herself from this mission with any man who catches her eye.

I read A Southern Family when it came out (1987), and only sort-of liked it. But then, this isn't about me.

Nonfiction

On the cover this week, Elizabeth Royte's review of Mark Kurlansky's The Big Oyster. Ms Royte's most recent book is Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, and what she does like about The Big Oyster is its "real subject ... the history of the trashing of New York." It seems ungallant of the Review to have assigned Mr Kurlansky's book to a specialist in the problems that rendered his subject locally extinct. She is certainly no "die-hard Kurlansky fan"; she remains unpersuaded by his claim to have told the story of New York in terms of a delicious bivalve, and quite ungenerously lists the things that she doesn't like about The Big Oyster.

Richard Lingeman, a senior editor at The Nation, thinks highly of Michael Kazin's A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. In keeping with the middle-brow nature of the Review's reviews of books such as this one, Mr Lingeman spends most of his time talking about Bryan's career in largely approving terms. He tells us that Mr Kazin's book

presents a compelling case that Bryan, at his zenith, was not only a powerful and effective leader of a political-moral crusade but also a pioneering advocate of progressive ideas still with us today.

But he does not tell us a thing about the "compelling case" itself. The message (to "small-p progressives) is: buy the book; it's for a good cause.

Globalism dominates the facing reviews at the center of this week's issue. To the left, there's The Case for Goliath, by Michael Mandelbaum. Martin Walker appears to accept Mr Mandelbaum's assumption that the United States is operating a largely benign and virtual empire. Mr Mandelbaum, according to Mr Walker,

explains coolly and clearly the various ways in which the united States now functions as a global government, offering the planet the services of physical security, commercial regulation, and legal recourse that are normally provided by national governments to their citizens.

This is a pipe dream of America, an idealization of the United States that takes its loftiest aspirations for fact. It is also a vision that, for its part, the Bush Administration has done everything to blot. There is not only "no credible alternative to the American role as linchpin and guarantor of the global system," but the system itself is anything but a system. Instead, it is a ramshackle coincidence of protection racket, commercial convention, and illegal manipulations. What planet are these men standing on? I wish I were there.

To the right, Michael Hirsh reviews Global Capitalism: Its Fall and Rise in the Twentieth Century, by Jeffry A Frieden and The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back, by Jeff Faux. I don't know what these two books are doing in the same review. Mr Frieden's work is a "magisterial history," while Mr Faux "unfortunately tends to see everything - even the Iraq war - through the prism of a global class war." Is that such a surprise, given the title of his book? Mr Hirsh complains that Mr Faux's "criticisms are frequently shrill and overdrawn." But while Mr Frieden makes sense of the past, Mr Faux issues a call to arms for future action. The dual review blunts the impact that each book might have had. I will come back to Mr Faux in a forthcoming entry; it is germane to an extremely, if unwittingly, disturbing essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan S Blinder's "Offshoring: The Next Industrial Revolution."

Judith Rich Harris is a "lay scientist," housebound due to illness, who has shaken up the professionals with her "amateur" theories about development. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality consolidates, according the William Saletan's review, the findings in Ms Rich's earlier work, The Nurture Assumption, a book that

set academic psychology on fire by attacking the notion that parenting styles shape children. Scholars, irked by this upstart former textbook writer and grad-school reject, scorned her arguments. In her new book, Harris tries to embarrass her critics while synthesizing her work into a theory of personality. No Two Alike is two books: a display of human weakness, and a display of scientific courage and imagination.

Mr Saletan never gets round to doing his job; we come to the end of the review not knowing what to think of Ms Harris's theories. But then he is not a psychologist, but a Slate correspondent and the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War. Perhaps the Review couldn't find an actual psychologist dispassionate enough to assess Ms Harris's provocative book.

Denis Donoghue reviews Peter Hart's Mick: The Real Michael Collins, calling it "a fine biography." He notes that it focuses on Collins's industriousness (once he heard the call) while leaving his salty private life to one side.

Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America is Eyal Press's "balanced" and "evenhanded" account of his father's career as a gynecologist in Buffalo, steadfastly staring down the malice of Operation Rescue. According to reviewer Kevin Doyle, Mr Press "manages the extraordinary feat of bringing light to a political issue that for far too long has generated nothing but blistering heat.

I read Jim Windolf's review of Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 almost without comprehension. I couldn't grasp what this book was doing in the Review. Mr Windolf, a writer at Vanity Fair, is largely unenthusiastic.

The windy phrasings bring to mind the fatal flaw of many pop music critics: because they write about things not considered high art, they panic and break out the 99-cent locutions.

Mr Windolf also believes that Mr Reynolds left out a few important bands that he ought to have covered.

Finally, there is Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection, by Geno Auriemma with Jackie MacMullen. Mr Auriemma is the coach who put the University of Connecticut on the women's basketball map, making it something of a capital in the process and, although it's not mentioned in Barry Gewen's review, opening floodgates of funding for what had been a very undernourished school.

Most people would take pride in such accomplishments, but not Auriemma. He remains fearful, haunted. His only certainty is that it will all come crashing down around him. It's little wonder his players feel so protective toward him. Clearly his outsider's insecurities - as an immigrant, a poor kid, a man in a woman's game - go a long way toward explaining his success. They also explain much of the charm of this book.

Mike Meyer, a writer residing in Beijing, writes an Essay about Pearl Buck, "Pearl of the Orient." Buck's novels were almost as popular in Chinese translation as they were in this country, and now they're rebounding in both countries, after the proscription of the Mao era and the American mandarins' disapproval of high-minded stories. Buck is often cited as proof that the Swedish Academy isn't very astute about literature, but maybe, if Mr Meyer is right, they weren't wrong to award her the Nobel Prize after all.

Note: With this issue, the Review inaugurates a science fiction page, "Across the Universe," by Dave Itzkoff. I long ago made it policy not to assess the ghettoes in which the Review covers crime and science fiction. There is nothing wrong with these genres except the packaging that goes with them. I recognize only one literary standard, and if I think that Ruth Rendell belongs in the feature pages of the Book Review, that doesn't mean that I'm going to see how the crime specialists write about her. I'll read Mr Itzkoff's column a few times before deciding whether it's legitimate. For the time being, you can read it for yourself here. If you have any thoughts about how I ought to treat "Across the Universe," I hope that you'll share them.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.portifex.com/movabletype/mt-tb.cgi/824

Comments

I'll take the bait. My interest has been piqued in the science fiction genre lately since a young Swiss woman we know excitedly introduced her aspiring science-fiction novelist husband (an African American) to my "published author" father. Since that conversation (there's always monsters in his books, she explained helpfully), I've been giving the genre thought as far as its usefulness in positing different societies and cultural solutions. So, in an indirect way, Itzkoff's complaint about the tech-heavy underpinnings of today's science fiction and an outright call for "actual people" to populate the geekie structures appealed to me. It made me think about "Never Let Me Go." Anyway, Itzkoff's column set off some creative rockets in my imagination in the way of a challenge or an invitation. So far, it's only dreams.

On another subject, may I open the door to comment by you on the extensive response in the Letters section in this week's Review by Daniel Dennett regarding Leon Wieseltier's firebrand assault on his treatise, "Breaking the Spell"? As you hinted in your column about that review, this seems a private philosophical debate in the very public and general pages of a plebian Book Review. I could hardly follow it. It was very offputting. The question remains: do I want to read the book?

I am a kottke.org micropatron

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2