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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

This week's must-read unfavorable review is William Logan's dump on The Oxford Book of American Poetry, edited by David Lehman. Mr Logan finds that "Lehman's catholic taste and appreciation of minor voices make him ill at ease with major ones." One comes away resolved to search Alibris for used copies of this very large volume's trim predecessors, The Oxford Book of American Verse and The New Oxford Book of American Verse.

The dirty secret of American poetry is that until Whitman and Dickinson it was no damn good, and until the modernists it was not good again.

Nell Freudenberger gives David Mitchell's Black Swan Green a very favorable review. It's difficult for me to assess, because I've already read at least two other favorable reviews of this remarkable writer's latest and made up my mind to read it. I don't think, somehow, that Ms Freudenberger would have convinced me. She emphasizes the novel's poetic writing and ghostly preoccupations. Ligaya Mishan makes Duchess of Nothing, a novel by Heather McGowan, sound very tempting, largely by means of quotations that convey the strange music of the narrator's voice: "a giddy version of English unlike any other." Taylor Antrim's review of Katharine Noel's Halfway House, on the other hand, quotes only one sentence, and otherwise rather lazily summarizes the plot. He calls this debut novel "sure-footed." Wyatt Mason's review of Whiteman, also a first novel, by Tony D'Souza, makes me eager to read it, despite its African setting and idealistic protagonist.

One significant virtue of D'Souza's storytelling rests in his ability to present Jack's experiences of African life with a vividness that reveals the continent's allure without sentimentalizing its exoticism.

He also points out that each of the novel's chapters is "a story that could stand on its own." Novels consisting of short stories are a tricky genre; in most cases the form of the story trumps that of the novel. I'm intrigued by Mr Mason's review to see if Whiteman might do better.

This week's cover story is Frederick Brown's Flaubert: A Biography. I don't recall a longer review than James Wood's. Actually, the review portion of the essay is very brief, a few sentences long.
Because Flaubert, like his details, is so visible and invisible, he needs to be cleaned of the glaze of his renown every so often and shown afresh; and he needs to be treated by someone who has himself a good eye for detail. Frederick Brown is the right candidate. As his 1995 biography of Zola demonstrated, he is an impeccable scholar with a talent for historical narrative, and the owner of a rich, flexible prose style. His magnificent new book is at once a history of 19th-century France and a brilliant exercise in character animation. A huge amount of research is the private income that gives this book its well-dressed assurance...
For the most part, Mr Wood sells the book by selling the subject.
Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert. And after Flaubert, it sometimes seems, this is all you get.
Mr Wood is so lucid in his praise of Flaubert that I began to see why I was bored and vexed by Sentimental Education, and why I can't manage to re-read Madame Bovary. Along with all the virtues catalogued by Mr Wood, Flaubert introduced the vice (in my view) of disaffection, of refusing his inheritance as a bourgeois. I'm not speaking of money here. Flaubert's rather sour struggle against the grain of his native worldview may have made him great, but it doesn't make him pleasant or encouraging. But Mr Wood makes it clear that Mr Brown's book is of the first importance for anyone interested in French literature of the nineteenth century.
Gail Saitz, a psychologist who appears on the Today show, has written Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie, and reviewer Lynn Harris is crazy about it. Her well-thought-out favorable review makes even the prospect of reading it a guilty pleasure, and if I were to read it, I'd feel crushing guilt about the things that I ought to be reading. Noting that Ms Saitz is occasionally "bogged down" by explanations, Ms Harris cleverly concludes: "Should you find yourself skipping ahead to the next juicy anecdote, that'll be your little secret. In the end, Pamela Paul comes down favorably for To Hell With All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, by Caitlin Flanagan. Daughter of the late historical novelist, Thomas Flanagan, the author has been publishing essays on the tension between self-realization and family service for a while now, and she has made a lot of enemies. Ms Paul writes,
As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women's myriad work-life choices that Flanagan's simplest observations - for example, when a woman works something is lost - are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
Ms Paul observes that "the previously published material has been substantially reworked," but what I've taken away from Ms Flanagan's essays probably remains in the book as well: namely, a sense of the toxicity of the nuclear family that Ms Flanagan herself does not recognize. She seems unaware that, historically, most mothers worked and left the care of their children to their own mothers, or to unmarried sisters. The stay-at-home mom is a Victorian pipe dream, originally an attempt by the middle classes to imitate the aristocracy. Rises in wages and the development of domestic appliances gradually put the stay-at-home mom to work, and very unrewarding work it is. I think that it's time to abandon the dream. It's also clear to me that the worst thing about "housekeeping" is taking care of children, something that modern parents do far too much of. Nonetheless, I'll vouch for Ms Flanagan's provocative writing.
David Oshinsky's review of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P Long, by Richard D White, Jr, is quietly unfavorable. Its topic sentence: "Unfortunately, like so much else in Kingfish, it's been said before." Most of the piece, naturally, is a resume of the career of the model for Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, but Mr Oshinsky does note that the author offers "no clear explanation as to why Huey, a child of relative privilege, would choose to lead class war against the wealthy."
There's a glamorous photograph of Clara Bow to illustrate Liesl Schillinger's favorable review of Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made American Modern, by Jonathan Zeitz. Once again, however, I fail to understand just what it was that made Box the "It" girl - aside, that is, from starring in a film of the same name in 1927. What did Bow have? I think it's rather what she didn't have - a full figure and a modest demeanor. In the photo, she thrusts one lamé-clad leg forward in a way that highlights the adjacent anatomy. She is a doll-faced temptress, a sign of vanished times, or proof, that is, that times had vanished. Clara Bow doesn't need any sex appeal herself to advertise the fact that sex appeal is on offer. Ms Schillinger does a fair amount of summarizing, but she does give us the chance to taste Mr Zeitz's style, as the following bit about New Yorker writer Lois Long demonstrates:
Under her pseudonym, Lipstick, she took in racy revues at speakeasies and dance halls, uptown and downtown. She married a fellow libertine, the New Yorker artist Peter Arno. "Once, they passed out after a long night of drinking at the New Yorker's staff club," Zeitz reports. (Harold Ross the magazine's editor, had created the club in hopes of keeping his bibulous scribes nearer their typewriters.) The next morning, Long recalled, they were found "stretched out nude on the sofa and Ross closed the place down." She explained, "Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to."
Equally spicy material abounds, it appears, in Sweet and Low: A Family Story, by Rich Cohen. Reviews of this memoir of the family that made a fortune from packets of artificial sweetener, written by a disinherited and gleefully remorseless scion, are almost helplessly entertaining. Kate Zernike's review is almost awe-struck:
Still, it takes nerve to play investigative reporter with your own family, and Cohen writes about the addictive thrill: "When you uncover the crucial piece of hidden information, the charge pops in your brain like a whippit [sic] and you cannot wipe the stupid smile off your face... The more you find, the more you want to find."
He conveys that rush to those of us only rubbernecking. Reading him savage his relatives, you sometimes wonder, is he allowed to do this? It's a guilty pleasure - sort of like sugar without the calories.
Writing on a somewhat more tangential course from memoir, Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, has put forward his thesis that Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler, but incidentally a handyman for the Junger family, murdered Bessie Goldberg, an old woman who lived a few blocks away. Her murder was pinned on a black man who happened to be working as a handyman at her house on the day she was killed. Alan M Dershowitz is something of a scourge in his review of A Death in Belmont, throwing up warning signals that the line between fact and fiction may have been crossed, and his envoi is almost lethal.
A Death in Belmont must be read with the appropriate caution that should surround any work of nonfiction in which the author is seeking a literary or dramatic payoff. Read in this manner, it is a worthy sequel to The Perfect Storm.
Patrick Allitt's review of Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth, by Richard John Neuhaus, attempts the impossible: to reconcile intellectual freedom with Catholic dogma. Well, he wants to suggest that Fr Niehaus has done a pretty good job of reconciling them. The secret? "Thinking with the church." Okay. Let me check my intellectual freedom first. There is much value in Catholic dogma; some of it is truly inspired from a humanist standpoint. But it is poisoned by an unreflectively patriarchal authority that, like all patriarchies at all times, is morbidly preoccupied by sexuality and obedience. The review interestingly traces the author's passage from liberal Lutheran pastor to conservative Roman Catholic priest. Mr Allitt helpfully points out just how unfree - certainly unoriginal - Fr Niehaus's thinking is: "People," he writes in summarizing the book,
who have same-sex relations, he says, should be thought of not as homosexuals but as sinners; a Christian's duty is to hate the sin and love the sinner.
Pardon me, but that's just bullshit.
Two books this week take view of the United States that are dark and darker. In The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner, we're exposed to the "secretive group of independent government science advisers" that started up in the Fifties. (The group and the Jasons who belong to it take their name from a calendrical coincidence - consider July through November.) Reviewer John Horgan, who admits to have done Jason-like work himself, thinks that Ms Finkbeiner does a good job of asking the Jasons whom she's been able to meet, "What were you thinking?" This question ought to have been asked in the present tense throughout the Viet Nam War, when scientists recommended some nasty (and ultimately unsuccessful) solutions to the problem of infiltration by the Viet Cong. Mr Horgan closes with a somber observation:
Finkbeiner's book also carries a message for those who fear we are entering an anti-science age, in which right-wing politicians, religious fundamentalists, Luddites and post-modernists challenge science's authority. Some scientists are circling the wagons, depicting science as the embodiment of enlightenment and all its critics as knaves or buffoons. But science is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity. Indeed, because of its immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill, science needs critics like Finkbeiner now more than ever.
The darker book is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq, by Stephen Kinzer. Anatol Lieven's highly favorable review is nevertheless not what I'd call enthusiastic.
I must confess that I put down this fine book with a feeling of deep disheartenment. For what, after all, is the point of such meticulously reported studies if the American public is repeatedly going to wipe such episodes from its collective consciousness, and the American establishment is going to make similar mistakes over and over again, first in the cold war and now in the "war on terror" - each time covering its actions with the same rhetoric of spreading "freedom" and combating "evil"?
Indeed. Nevertheless, Mr Lieven leaves no doubt that this is an indispensable book for adult Americans, however few of us there are.
How old is Jennifer Homans, the dance critic at The New Republic? Her review of Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance, by Marcia B Siegel, is so fraught with agenda that it brings the Cultural Revolution unpleasantly to mind.
To some degree, Tharp's story is that of the 1960s generation to which she belongs. Her often bewildering lapses in confidence and judgment are part of a debilitating cultural uncertainty that has hit musical theater and dance especially hard. Movin' Out tried to be the West Side Story of our time. But it isn't: Billy Joel is no Leonard Bernstein. If we are to understand Tharp's life and career, we will need more than a description of her dances. Tharp is a complicated and formidable woman. She is also one of the most important artists of our time. Her story still awaits a writer who isn't afraid to take her on and ask some hard questions.
Guess she didn't like the book.
James Wolcott's Essay, "Dwight Macdonald at 100," commemorates a once-famous critic. Macdonald's code seems to have been this: "When I say no I'm always right, and when I say yes I'm almost always wrong." Mr Wolcott adds,
Right or wrong, his verdicts would mean nothing to us now if he hadn't invested them with a humming force of personality and humor that opened up daylight wherever his mind gusted. Every intellectual era needs its dedicated pirates, and Dwight Macdonald was one of postwar's finest. He wrote and spoke as if fear and conformity were foreign to his nature and affronts to the spirit of liberty. If he were alive, he'd scoff at what wimps we've become under the threat of terrorism. He'd scold us for letting ourselves down. Happy birthday, Dwight, and give our best to Jim Agee.
NB: I had every intention of giving myself a pass to write this review, if ever, some time next week, in view of the fact that I've got Easter dinner to prepare. For one reason or another, however, my pace has been steady enough to give me the time to write what struck me, this morning, as one of the most interesting issues of the Book Review in recent memory.


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I'm reading The Duchess of Nothing right now. It's both very interesting (in terms of its language) and slightly underwhelming. I'm only about half way through, so it's a bit unfair to characterize it too early, but I do hope that something deep happens, otherwise I'm afraid it might end up being a tad superfluous. (But there are some great passages in it.)

RE: Logan's review of the Oxford book. Since his review is void of reasoned arguement, one must wonder if his hysteria has something to do with the fact that he's not included in the book (though eligible) and has never been chosen for Best American Poetry, that is, his work has been rejected by every editor of Lehman's series since its inception in 1998. Doesn't pass the smell test. Does he even like poetry?

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