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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

First, the poetry; this week, it's on the cover. Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments has prompted a stinging rebuke from Helen Vendler, at The New Republic. Ms Vendler is opposed to publishing "maimed and stunted siblings" of Bishop's best work. David Orr, in the Book Review is almost wildly enthusiastic. "You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop," he begins. Well! Mr Orr's piece is not a book review but an encomium, making arguably extravagant claims for Bishop's verse. It is noted in passing that Alice Quinn, poetry editor at The New Yorker, edited the collection.

Colson Whitehead's is a name that I've heard a lot without, however, hearing anything very tempting. David Gates's review of Apex Hides the Hurt doesn't alter the situation. The review is for the most part a summary of the apparently non-naturalistic novel, and one clogged by comment. It's not at all fun to read. "There happens to be a perfectly good word to characterize Whitehead's enterprise, but to tell you would ruin his ending," writes Mr Gates. If a book's ending could really be ruined by the premature ejaculation of le mot juste, then it's not the enterprise for me. I would say that only a fan of Mr Whitehead would get anything out of this review, but the only thing to get is warm fellow-feeling, not insight.

Liesl Schillinger DOESN'T LIKE Lucy Ellmann's Doctors & Nurses, expressing her annoyance with Ms Ellmann's reliance on capitalized words.

There's no reason an overweight, self-destructive female character can't beguile the reader. ... But Ellmann's readers will have difficulty deciding whether the reaction she wants Jen to provoke is laughter, commiseration, guilt or the gag reflex.

Top marks, Ms Schillinger!

Jacob Heilbrunn's review of The Last Supper, a Cold War novel by Charles McCarry, is somewhat less felicitous.

So where does McCarry's nearly faultless performance leave him in the cold war novelistic pantheon? He easily bests his American rivals, but whether he topples his British contemporaries from the perch is another matter.

It is a matter that ought to have been the topic of the review; instead of which, Mr Heilbrunn summarizes the plot.

There are two historical novels this week, both based on real people, Marie Curie and Bertolt Brecht respectively. Francine Prose pretty much blasts The Book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olav Enquist (translated by Tina Nunnally).

The fact that one so often pauses in mid-sentence to think "How interesting if this were true!" signals a disquieting lack of engagement with the sentence one is actually reading.

A quick, effective thrust. Neil Gordon's review of Brecht's Mistress, by Jacques-Marie Amette (translated by Andrew Brown) is clouded by the novel's reception in Europe, where it has been praised by A N Wilson and awarded the Prix Goncourt. Mr Gordon does not share the enthusiasm. "The events of the novel, while historically exact, are undramatized." One finishes the review wondering if Mr Gordon is the right reader to review an understandably prickly French novel.


Two books in this week's Review criticize, directly or indirectly, the grip of globalizing free trade on the lives of millions. In similarly-structured pieces, both are praised but ultimately judged to be naive. Contents are admiringly summarized, and then hands are thrown into the air. I like to think that this sort of thing can't go on much longer: somebody has to start calling for restrictions on unfettered free markets, because it is palpably not the case that everyone benefits from unrestricted commerce. Indeed, Robert B Reich, reviewing Fair Trade For All: How Trade Can Promote Development, by Joseph E Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton, points out that the "wealthy are growing much wealthier while the middle class is being squeezed." But Mr Reich, a former labor secretary, has nothing more to say than his hope that wealth will be more equitably distributed. Surely he could do better. He writes,

Without these other institutions [roads, schools, &c] in place, the authors say, trade by itself can do more harm than good.

It is precisely the development of new institutions, designed to encourage and protect widespread productivity, that thinkers on this subject should be working on. Such institutions will counter the otherwise irresistible pull that drives capitalists to employ as few human beings as possible. That this pull is currently wreaking damage in the United States is the subject of Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. Economist Brad DeLong writes,

Uchitelle's diagnosis that mass layoffs are a serious national problem is convincing. But for this card-carrying economist, his desired prescription is not. I see no examples anywhere in the world of economies that have taken steps in the directions he desires without severe side-effects.

All right, so the European model has its flaws. Again, Mr DeLong ought to be formulating constructive questions. I repeat: neither of these reviewers is a layman. It's extremely demoralizing to see such a lack of creative spirit.

The role of religion in European life since 1789 is an all-too-lively subject. Jacobin radicals sought to destroy the Roman Catholic Church and replace it with secular festivals that, in the absence of episcopal scrutiny, slid inexorably toward demagoguery. Along the way, Joseph de Maistre invented reaction, the struggle to re-write history by erasing it that afflicts a lot of Americans who believe that this country went to hell in the 1960s. Mark Lilla is right to worry that history may be repeating itself. His two-page review of Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe From the French Revolution to the Great War, by Michael Burleigh, seems to have wandered in from The New York Review of Books. Mr Lilla is a capable and lucid writer, but what he writes is invariably suffused with a sense of hidden agenda. What are the strongly-held beliefs that seem to underpin his work without his ever disclosing them? Nowhere in this review does Mr Lilla make clear his own sentiments about the topic of Mr Burleigh's timely book. He does regret the possibility that here in the twenty-first century, as in Europe in the nineteenth, mutating religiosity will lead to fascistic intolerance, and he's firm about the futility of expecting Arab nations to flower into liberal democratic states anytime soon. But, like Messrs Reich and DeLong, he enjoys summarizing and diagnosing better than badly-needed prognostication. Of Mr Burleigh's book, he writes that "is also a surprisingly messy work with no clear thesis to advance, lazily written in patches and in dire need of editing." On the plus side of this review with no clear thesis, however,

Burleigh does a marvelous job profiling these colorful characters while still managing to convey the historical importance of their ideas.

Corey S Powell's review of Programming The Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos, by Seth Lloyd, engages itself in saying nice or at least interesting things about Mr Lloyd's book without actually recommending that anybody buy it. In short, it's deeply dissatisfying. As it is, I'm holding my head trying to digest the following summary of Mr Lloyd's claims:

The universe is a quantum computer whose computations are the movements of information that define the world we experience.

Mr Powell is an editor at Discover magazine; he seems to be concerned about being taken in.

Samuel Freedman generally admires Cynthia Carr's Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America. Ms Carr grew up in Marion, Indiana, where in 1930 two black men were lynched, not by a spontaneous mob but "a recruited, orchestrated gang of vigilantes." Mr Freeman praises Ms Carr's "relentless, remorseless scrutiny" but faults the author for failing to subject a beloved grandfather to it.

In his new book, The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, Sidney D Kirkpatrick will have nothing to do with rumors that Thomas Eakins was a submerged homosexual, and, reviewer Deborah Solomon finds this daft. Writing of the photographs taken by Eakins as studies for Swimming, Ms Solomon remarks that "they have only extended the debate over whether Eakins approached the male figure as a lesson in anatomy or as an object of homoerotic desire." Nor does she think much of Mr Kirkpatrick's title.

Kirkpatrick has titled his book The Revenge of Thomas Eakins because he believes that the artist's posthumous fame represents a sweet and overdue vindication. But does a dead man's success constitute a feat of revenge? Hardly. Any artist with a reputation has obviously triumphed over his detractors. If the title restates the self-evident, the same must finally be said of this book, which fails to deepen our understanding of the artist or question Eakins's image of himself as the ultimate truth-teller. For all his claims about stripping away falsehoods and advancing the cause of realism, Eakins, it seems, could not bring himself to confront the reality of his own inner life. You might say that he mistook the nude body for the naked truth.

There are two memoirs this week. The first one sounds, at least in Danielle Trussoni's review, wildly embarrassing. Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine, mother and daughter, write tandem memoirs of "what seems like an extreme-sport version of juvenile delinquency and rehab," in Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back.

At its best, Come Back is a testament to the power of love between a mother and daughter. At its worst, it is illustrative of Claire's tendency to manage her daughter's life by placing her into a story line that she, Claire, has created.

Ew. Then there's Gail Caldwell A Strong West Wind: A Memoir. Ms Caldwell, longtime Boston book critic, grew up in Amarillo, and she misses it. If it hadn't been for the Sixties, she might have stayed there, but her life has always been governed by tensions that pull her both to the great outdoors of Texas and the great indoors of libraries. Joyce Johnson can't quite bring herself to decide whether the "plain-spoken writing" that she likes is so overpowered by "eloquent," "overheightened" passages that it ruins the book for her. Making nice and having it both ways is Ms Johnson's game.

There isn't anything that Darrin M McMahon's review of Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment could have said to get me to read this book. As Mr McMahon points out, authors David Edmonds and John Eidinow have "perfected the genre of the cerebral celebrity death match." Mr McMahon is not too polite to find this sexing up of a feudetta between Rousseau and Hume "slightly strained." Such foolishness.

In  other sports news, Neil Genzlinger wryly assesses Thomas Hackett's "desperate, though not unconvincing, effort to discover meaning" in professional wrestling. At the end, however, he suggests that, for all Mr Hackett's efforts in Slaphappy: Pride, Prejudice, and Professional Wrestling, pro wrestling may indeed by "unredeemable garbage." Franklin Foer, editor at The New Republic no less, praises To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, Will Blythe's new book about college basketball for going "far beyond the facile John Feinstein 'inside a season' formula." Now, until I began this feature, I had no idea of John Feinstein's existence, but already I've learned, through bad reviews of two of his books, that he had better have thick skin! Mr Blythe's subtitle is so long that it requires its own sentence. A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry. This is a Thinking Man's Sports Book: it makes a reference to Conrad. The good news is that nobody really hates anybody.

Instead of an Essay, we get a Poem, a cento. In case you've forgotten, a cento is a pastiche of lines drawn from other poems, strategically arrangement to create new meaning. The Greeks and the Romans wrote them, and ever since "The Waste Land" they've been as popular as ever. As editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman thought to commemorate its publication with a cento drawn from the book's contents. It's engaging, but there's nothing like John Ashbery's mash-up of Spenser and Stevens:

Calm was the day and through the trembling air,

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.


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I was anxious to read Mark Lilla's review of Earthy Powers by Michael Burleigh, having read a review of the book several months ago in the on-line edition of The Daily Telegraph. Lilla's negative remark about the book (which you quote) surprised me, because I recalled the Telegraph review as being something of a rave, which, at the time, made me add Earthly Powers to my ever-lengthening list of books that I must read. The Telegraph review, which appeared in the newspaper's October 23, 2005, edition, was written by Andrew Roberts; in Mr. Roberts' opinion:

Michael Burleigh's exploration of how politics has affected religion and vice versa between the Enlightenment and the outbreak of the Great War is a hugely ambitious intellectual undertaking, but one that succeeds magnificently.
Roberts' only (somewhat) negative comment, perhaps consonant with Lilla's opinion that the book is in 'dire need of editing,'appears at the end of his review:
There are occasional forays into the obscure...but generally, Burleigh sticks closely to his fascinating, important and thought-provoking central theme: the politics of religion and the religion of politics.

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