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Book Review

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

It has become clear to me that I undertook this weekly review of the Book Review in order to find out what the Review is about. What's it for? Why do people read book reviews, and for whom are they written? What are the elements of a good book review? None of these questions were present to me when I started the feature last fall, but they've emerged as I've paid close regular attention to the publication, reading all of the reviews and not just the ones that interest me.

The principal purpose of a book review, it seems pretty clear, is to provide readers with some idea of what the book under review is like, and there are two reasons why people want this idea. The first, and more innocent, is the search for recommendations. "I'm looking for a book to read; what do you recommend?" I would say that no more than one person in fifty is such a reader. More common, and less innocent, is the search for inside information. "What can I learn about that book without reading it?" This information may or may not be used to enhance such a reader's conversation, but it is acquired with little or no intention of making a purchase. The Book Review allows its readers to stay roughly current with the latest important books - that's the idea, anyway. Defining "important" involves demographic calculations that don't interest me right now; on the whole, I think that the Times does a fairly good job of fulfilling its mission. Bearing in mind that no source of buzz can be comprehensive, the Book Review is a reliable provider of the commodity.

Book reviews have an important afterlife, however, and I often wonder how conscious reviewers are of it. In time, they become historical documents that reflect the Zeitgeist in which they were written. What did people think of Gone With The Wind when it was published? The easiest way to find out is to collect book reviews and seek a consensus. What this research will show, of course, is what professionally literate writers thought of the book, but I think that we can depend on editors to know their markets. Most book reviews that appear in The New York Review of Books would be wildly out of place in the Book Review. They're much longer, for one thing. They're more demanding, and they focus on more demanding books. And they're much less ephemeral than the reviews in the Book Review.

It is important to note the difference between a book review and a book report. Book reports are pedagogical devices designed to test literacy skills, and teachers grade the students who write them, not the writers of the subject books. I fear that many book reviewers, doubtless adepts of the form in elementary school, have not fully realized that grown-up readers are not looking for book reports.

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry. Aliki Barnstone has published a new translation of the poems of C P Cavafy, the Alexandrian Greek (1863-1933) so often quoted by Lawrence Durrell. In his exemplary review, Brad Leithauser makes a case for Cavafy, concluding with a roster of poets whom he has profoundly influenced. The review grips the essence of Cavafy's aesthetic:

The poems themselves are like little rooms; most are of modest length, most are concerned with either private action or with scholarship's interior forays. Cavafy certainly was no nature poet. His poems give little indication that he ever saw with any clarity a tree or an animal or - despite Alexandria's maritime history - a seascape.

Mr Leithauser praises the translations, but explains that he still prefers earlier work by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, because their renderings give a better sense of "how Cavafy put his poems together."

Joyce Carol Oates's review of Some Fun: Stories and a Novella, by Antonya Nelson, is a classic book report. The stories and the novella are summarized - rewritten, in effect. Fragments of Ms Nelson's prose don't quite convey the feel of her prose; they're cut off too soon. I am not entirely sure that Ms Oates liked the book.

The stories of Some Fun are so similar in tone, characters and situation that they tend to overlap in the memory like a single story with numerous, proliferating subplots. This is domestic realism, with something of the aura, jarring and yet convincing, of the TV sitcom.

I think that that's positive.

Donald E Westlake's review of John Mortimer's new book, Quite Honestly, belongs to a genre of reviews that I have yet to find the name of. Perversity has something to do with its composition - the editor's or the reviewer's. Why does Mr Westlake feel called upon to make a big brouhaha (in a half-page review, no less) about differences between British and American English? Is it to disguise

... the problem that I'm having here? If I tell you much about the plot I'll give the whole thing away. There's an inevitability to it, to tell you the truth. Not exactly the inevitability of the Greek tragedies, a little more clockwork than that - which sounds awful, but isn't.

How about the inevitability of farce? Say "farce," and you don't have to apologize for saying something that sounds awful but isn't? This would have been a perfect occasion to some up the distinctly British type of funny novel at which Mr Mortimer is a pastmaster.

Leonora Todaro's review of Rose of No Man's Land, by Michelle Tea, is a much better piece.

With Rose of No Man's Land, Tea is trying to do for working-class teenage lesbians what S E Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders did for greasers and street-brawling tough guys in the 1970s and 80s: to let them be heard and felt.  ... with this novel, Tea moves forward into her imagination, reining in her story so it can buck free.

That's not only well done, but it persuades me, not so much to order the book, but to listen for other comments on what might, despite it area of interest, be a very good read.

This leaves David Leavitt's book-reportish review of The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters. It is difficult to resist the impression that Mr Leavitt's job is to say something nice about a cohabitant of his ghetto - another writer of "gay fiction." He tries, valiantly, counting, perhaps on the reader's coming to an early decision that he likes the book when in fact it's clear that he sees it as a failure.

The problem is Water's decision to use reverse chronology. ...

Indeed, by the time we reach the end (or is it the beginning?) of this otherwise estimable and moving book, we know so much more than the characters that our knowledge dilutes the impact of what should be the most dramatic section. For all the vigor and intensity of its prose, The Night Watch leaves us with the sense that both the reader's experience and the characters' lives have been manipulated to suit the author's design.

To which I'd add that I'm only too happy to be manipulated by a writer, as long as I'm never aware of it.


I hope you've got a while.

On the cover, there's Paul Berman's cautious assessment of Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy. With this book, Mr Fukuyama withdraws his allegiance to the neoconservative program that is ruining the country and parts of the world. One is reminded of David Brock's Blinded By The Right. It isn't always nice when former opponents come to share your point of view; you want to be sure. And Mr Berman is not sure.

The neoconservatives, he suggests, are people who, having witnessed the collapse of Communism long ago, ought to look back on those gigantic events as a one-in-a-zillion lucky break, like winning the lottery. Instead, the neoconservatives, victims of their own success, came to believe that Communism's implosion reflected the deepest laws of history, which were operating in their own and America's favor - a formula for hubris. This is a shrewd observation, and might seem peculiar only because Fukuyama's own "End of History" articulated the world's most eloquent argument for detecting within the collapse of Communism the deepest laws of history. He insists in his new book that The End of History ought never to have led anyone to adopt such a view, but this makes me think only that Fukuyama is an utterly unreliable interpreter of his own writings.

Mary Roach has some quibbles with Annie Cheney's  Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains, but she bestows the highest imaginable honor:

Like Jessica Mitford's American Way of Death, this book's combination of readability and investigative firepower will, one hopes, draw the broad readership and outrage needed to instigate change.

Dominique Browning, the chief editor at House & Garden, reviews Winifred Gallagher's House Thinking: A Room-By-Room Look at How We Live, and in the process tells me exactly what I want to know: House Thinking is as fizzily earnest as was Ms Gallager's The Power of Place (1994).

Gallagher speaks to many of the professionals of house thinking (thought they wouldn't think of themselves that way) - not just architects but also behavioral scientists and environmental psychologists. And this is where her book runs into trouble. There's something intriguing about a subculture devoted to studying the way we live at home, but do we really need a PhD to understand "environmental psychology's most important, and deceptively simple, principle regarding home: yours should meet your physical and psychological needs"?

In another strong review, Erica Wagner all but trashes Fernanda Eberstadt's Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France, and you ought to read the piece for yourself.

You can learn a lot about Fernanda Eberstat in this book, and perhaps more than the author intended. But if you too wish to go in search of these Gypsies and their music, do as I did, and buy their CD.

Ouch! The other review that you have to read is Ron Powers's piece on Arnold Weinstein's Recovering Your Story: Proust Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison.

Before you know it, Weinstein is managing to make Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison sound like the editorial staff at Self magazine.

Funny stuff, and Mr Weinstein comes across better than you'd think.

James Reston Jr's Fragile Innocence: A Father's Memoir of His Daughter's Courageous Journey, gets a sympathetic review from Polly Morrice, but it's not a particularly inviting one. I can't what it was the Hillary Reston's, but a nonmedical term might be "permanent nightmare." Diane Johnson reviews The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King. There's a blooper: Ms Johnson writes that it was Meissonier, not Manet, who led the revolt that founded the Salon des Refusés. Otherwise, she gives this somewhat revisionist history moderately good marks.

King doesn't miss the character flaws of any of his large cast, and the effect is a meticulously detailed panorama not unlike one of Meissonier's grandest battlefield scenes.

I may find myself reading this book. Moving right along through the Kings, Will Blythe's review of Larry L King's In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor is pretty pungent, stressing Mr King's complete lack of objectivity.

Appropriately for a book in which enough alcohol is consumed to fill Long Island Sound, In Search of Willie Morris feels like a reminiscence spilled over a long night sitting at the bar - rambling, bawdy, score-settling, gossipy, partisan and sentimental with occasional bouts of weeping. There are even a few places where King seems to have fallen asleep next to his drink before lurching awake to resume his monologue.

Aside from making In Search of Willie Morris sound irresistible, that passage makes me mourn the great days of Esquire, of which Mr Blyte was literary editor for a spell.

On facing pages, Peter Beinart and Rick Lyman cover new books about - what, exactly? Politics? Electoral Engineering? Process? Policy? Let me begin by saying that I can't imagine why anyone would buy either Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future, by James Carville and Paul Begala or Rebel-In-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W Bush. Mr Lyman wryly describes them as "fresh logs to stoke the nation's partisan furnaces." Crashing the Gage: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, by contrast, sounds almost worthwhile in Mr Beinart's hands. I ask myself, however, why the authors of this book aren't busy laying the foundations of a new party, organized entirely differently and run by altogether different personnel. Their book appears to stop just short of such audacity, but Mr Beinart catches a whiff of it.

It's possibly no coincidence that Moulitsas, the founder of the popular blog Daily Kos, did a stint in Silicon Valley. In his complaints about the Democratic establishment, he sounds like the head of Google describing General Motors: the party is slow, top-heavy and destined for obsolescence unless it makes a radical change in its culture.

Mr Beinert dwells on the authors' concession that they don't know which "common principles" are shared by Democrats. This is perhaps backward: it's the Democratic leadership that ought to leading their supporties in a common purpose.

If there's one book in this week's Review that I'm definitely getting, it's Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music, by English conductor Jane Glover. It is wrong to see a "feminine" quality in Mozart's music, when what's really there is an esteem for women. Reading Anthony Tommasini's review, it occurred to me that there are two strains of heterosexual men: those who really like women, and those who need women but don't like them. (I'd further posit that women who only care for the latter type are doomed to the same unhappiness that afflicts gay men who pursue straight lovers.) Mozart was assuredly in the former camp, as the briefest reading of his X-rated letters to Constanze make clear. Mr Tommasini praises Ms Glover's book but doesn't talk about it much; instead, he retells its story and then winds up, incredibly, with this:

Is it permissible any longer to say that only a woman could have written this refreshing and valuable book?

No, Mr Tommasini, it is not permissible. I can't believe the thought occurred to you.

At the other end of the musical spectrum - well, perhaps not quite the very end - is Karen Schoemer's Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with '50s Pop Music, reviewed, not entirely favorably, by singer Nellie McKay. Great Pretenders profiles seven pop singers who specialized in "unspoken passion, earnest preachers at the altars of puppy love," among them Patti Page, whose recording of "You Belong To Me" was a great favorite of mine when I was about ten and just beginning to be interested in music. (Nowadays, however, I'm likelier to listen to the great Yao Li sing it. You can, too.) Despite her reservations, Ms McKay concludes that Great Pretenders is "a truly unique background to a grossly underappreciated era in American music."

Lucy Ellman doesn't care for My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, by Janna Malamud Smith, and has no trouble saying why.

Smith should be asking why she would want to write a book about a novelist when she seems to have so little idea of how or why fiction comes into being.

I know that critiques of American intelligence gathering is a hot and important topic, but David Holloway's moderately favorable review of Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence From Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea, by Jeffrey T Richelson, simply makes me want to turn the page. Mr Holloway does not convey an idea of the book that he would have liked this one to be. Indeed I had a hard time distinguishing what Mr Holloway, as a specialist in this area, was reporting from what he might be interjecting. Reviews that try to tell a story and pass judgment in the same passages often lose me.

All right, I've been at this for nearly three hours, and Short Shrift is all that Pets in America: A History, by Katherine C Grier (reviewed by Alida Becker) and Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever [Oh, please!], by Don Haskins with Dan Wetzel (reviewed by Gerald Eshkenazi), are going to get from me. Who slept with whom?! Nor will I discuss Blake Eskin's Essay, "Books to Chew On." Is it permissible to say that literal bibliophagy is a topic that doesn't belong in the Book Review?

Like, I mean, Yikes.


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