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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

There are two books of poetry this week, covered one review largely, it seems, because the poets in question hail from the Atlantic Isles. Neither is English but both live in London now, and Stephen Burt's review is so enthusiastic that I have already ordered one of the books online, Nick Laird's To A Fault. I was not tempted to read the first novel of this former lawyer and current Mr Zadie Smith, but the lines of verse that Mr Burt quotes are irresistible. Why? Because they're in English.

As any Frenchman will tell you, we don't speak English here. We speak American. As a demotic dialect, it is a midden of low-class English, sparked only by the King James Bible, and the flotsam of countless immigrant expressions. It is a patois that always tends to the vague and noncommittal - except where results really matter, in which case it falls back on sports talk. No one wrote readable American until Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and their approach was to succeed by saying as little as possible. Jonathan Franzen is one of the first writers, I believe, to speak in a naturally eloquent American. Our poetry, in contrast, is still too affected, too unlike our ordinary carelessness, to lean on. Beyond Wallace Stevens's serious playfulness and John Ashbery's commitment to inconsequence there is little to recommend American verse.

In the Atlantic Isles, English is inflected only by some Celtic remnants that were assimilated long ago. British xenophobia may be lamentable, but it has kept the language strong. Am I pleading for racial purity here? Hardly. The reverse, if anything. A strong sense of language allows wildly diverse human beings to make sense to one another. American, as a language, is a device for the upkeep of ghettos.

There, I feel better now. The other book, Robin Robertson's Swithering, also sounds good, but not for me, at least if Mr Burt is right:

Their requirements - brevity, clarity, story - permit approaches as different as Robin Robertson's and Nick Laird's: the first stoic, generalizing and compellingly terse; the second loquacious, voluble, able to revel in details.

Mr Burt feels at one point obliged to provide a definition of the word "counterpane." It's quite true that this word is not an item of standard English. But I have always known what it means, because I grew up on Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. So should your little ones.

The cover story this week is Philip Roth's Everyman, enthusiastically reviewed (wow!) by Nadine Gordimer. Like every review of this book that I've come across, this one sings in praise of Mr Roth's themes, and in so doing confirms my real dislike of MEN who indulge their DESIRES for SEX until the moment of their DEATH. A few years ago, I read an extract from Sabbath's Funeral in The New Yorker. Quite aside from the genuinely disgusting climax - or perhaps not - was the eloquently adolescent prose. Mr Roth is simply a more-gifted-than-most embodiment of the failure to recognize that adolescence is to be grown out of.

On the page facing the bulk of Ms Gordimer's essay is Walter Kirn's two-timing review of A M Homes's latest offering, This Book Will Save Your Life. For acres of print, Mr Kirn appears to laud Ms Homes. It's only in the antepenultimate paragraph that he lowers the boom. Ms Homes, he writes,

seems flummoxed by the larger task of leveraging Richard's adventures in recovery into a panoramic Los Angeles black comedy. Her people are made of dough that just won't rise. Her miniature editorials on class and status belong in a 1960s Newsweek column. She scourges Hollywood in all the ways that make it tingle with guilty ecstasy.

If Walter Kirn keep this up, I'm going to open a separate section, just for his bracing reviews, of which this is the fifth this year.

Christopher Dickey reviews Neil McFarquhar's The Sand Café. Both men are journalists who have covered the Near-Asian beat, and Mr Dickey is largely sympathetic about what he nevertheless makes clear is a thin novelization of actual events - namely, the hurry-up-and-wait of Operation Desert Storm. Nor does he let us forget that Evelyn Waugh nailed this subgenre in 1938's Scoop. Jacob Heilbrunn is rather less forgiving about Alex Berenson's The Faithful Spy, an "exciting, if flawed, tale." He particularly faults Mr Berneson for "chest-thumping" in this novel about a rogue CIA agent who's single-handedly out to defeat al-Qaida, and, even worse, for appearing to believe that torture is effective.

Thomas Beller reviews two collections of shorter fiction from abroad. Cristina Henriquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart, may be an American, but she spent chunks of childhood in her father's native Panama. Mr Beller, although he confesses to reading the books under review in order to learn things about faraway places, nevertheless writes intelligently about the books themselves as texts. Of Ms Henriquez, he observes that

Her sentences have a muted calm that suggests, paradoxically, something quite remote from inner peace: it's the state you will yourself into so you can hold on to the many disparate threads of life.

Of The Nimrod Flipout, Etgar Keret's portfolio of thirty prose snapshots (translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Schlesinger and Sondra Silverston), Mr Beller writes,

By the end, he's accumulated a stock of reflections and insights that are breathtakingly banal.

But the review does quite interestingly point out that Mr Keret's Israelis have learned how to muck up their own lives with self-inflicted disasters as a means of liberation from the dread of terrorist attacks.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is an engaged New York Times writer with whom I almost always disagree about something, and I have to say that I'm scratching my head over his decision to narrate Timothy: Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile from the point of view of an eighteenth-century tortoise. Reviewer David Gessner tries to make sense of the gambit without success, but he does grasp that Mr Klinkenborg seems to believe that only a non-human can see human beings in perspective, as creatures in the natural order of things - something the very fact of his novel belies.


Lord, what a lot of books to deal with on such a beautiful day in May.

The first book reviewed within the pages of this week's Review is a must-have: Helen Castor's Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During England's Tumultuous Wars of the Roses. For a long stretch of my teens, I thought that the War of the Roses was the coolest thing that had ever happened; it took a while to realize that said wars were nothing more than a descent into gangland, but with great clothes. The wonderful thing about the middle of the fifteenth century is the profusion of characters and shifting allegiances; no matter how often I read about the period, I always have to reminded who liked whom. The Paston Letters - a trove of over a thousand missives discovered in the eighteenth century - are better than Shakespeare at communicating the flavor of the times, and reading at least a few of them in the original late Middle English - already much more open to us than Chaucer - is something that every educated person ought to attempt. Megan Marshall's enthusiastic review points out that Ms Castor, notwithstanding Virginia Woolf's complaint that the letters are "mounds of insignificant and often dismal dust," has discovered a very English story in the material: the rise of a family from peasantry to prominence in a few generations, under cover of civic unrest.

Paul Krugman's review of Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery, by David Warsh, makes it clear that this is a book that I'll have to read. I'm not sure that I understand what it's about, not because the review is unclear but because I am thinking so hard at the moment about Jane Jacobs's Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a very different sort of book. Mr Krugman, who quibbles with a few details, waives the nit-picking and hails Mr Warsh's command of "high intellectual drama." Another important book seems to be The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements: 1967-1977, by Gershom Gorenberg. According to Jonathan D Tepperman's favorable review, Mr Gorenberg attributes the mess in Israel to neither self-defense nor territorial theft, but rather to the policy of no policy. While the Israeli government did nothing, "young zealots dreaming of a biblical 'Greater Israel'" launched their settlements, which the government eventually gave up closing.  

The book works powerfully on two important levels: as a deeply informative counterhistory and as a mournful reminder of what happens when a democratic government acquiesces in the fact of its own militants. ... Still, by showing the root of the problem - incompetence, not ideology - Gorenberg points to the direction from which an answer may someday emerge.

Joseph Kahn's review of Gordon G Chang's Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World suggests, in contrast, that this is a piece of punditry pure and simple, in which "hyperbole and cliché overwhelm some astute revelations."

Five American history books are reviewed this week, and two French. David Gilmour, whose The Ruling Caste was nicely reviewed last week, has a characteristically English view of the French Revolution, observing that, as most of its objectives had been already been attained in England and America, and without bloodshed. He faults David Andress for sympathizing, bottom-line - with the revolutionaries, but calls his book, The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France, "vivid and powerful." And he strongly disagrees with Ruth Scurr, whose Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.

In fact the Revolution was the fount and origin not of our world but of the totalitarian era, an inspiration to future dictators who could adopt Rousseau's theory of the General Will as an excuse to avoid democracy and who could label their opponents counterrevolutionaries as an excuse to murder them without trial.

[In the recent issue of The London Review of Books, on the other hand, Hilary Mantel is so wowed by Ms Scurr's biography of Robespierre that I senses a certain regret that The Incorruptible is unavailable for dating.]

Louise Knight points out that Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America, by James Green, is only the fourth book to have been written about a shameful episode in United States history - what a surprise. Ms Knight regrets Mr Green's book's lack of "strong narrative voice, backed up by a disciplined willingness to winnow out the intriguing but extraneous from the vitally relevant." Alan Wolfe reviews three books about the Founders' religious faith, two favorably: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, by David L Holmes, and Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, by Peter R Henriques; and one not: American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham. Mr Wolfe agrees with Mr Holmes and Mr Henriques that the Founders were not, on the whole, conventional Christians, but Deists at best. Considering Washington's silence, Jefferson's cut-and-paste bible, Adams's Unitarianism, and so on, this seems to be the right judgment. But of course it makes today's evangelicals unhappy; they want to use the Founders' piety as a means of hijacking the nation. Mr Wolfe does not linger over Mr Meacham's book and concludes his review on a pessimistic note.

We often want to believe that history moves forward. When we compare the role of religion in politics at our founding to its role today, we just might conclude otherwise.

Ted Widmer faults The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, by Jonathan Alter, for a few minor shortcomings, but notes that it "has a refreshing buoyancy, not unlike its protagonist." Mr Widmer echoes Mr Wolfe's gloom:

In fact, if there is an overarching frustration to the experience of reading this book, it is that the panorama of hope and ingenuity that Alter paints for us today seems a thing of the past.

Say what you will about the United States, thousands are still dying to get in - literally. Sonia Nazario's Enrique's Journey is the harrowing but magnificent account, according to review Sarah Wildman, of one Honduran family's unhappy journey from one kind of poverty to another. "It's adventure travel for masochists," writes Ms Wildman.

According to Scott Stossel, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness jocularly advances the view that happiness is a delusion.

For instance, healthy people can be deluded into greater happiness when granted the mere illusion of control over their environment; the clinically depressed recognize the illusion for what it is. All in all, it's yet more evidence that unhappy people have the more accurate view of reality - and that learning how to kid ourselves may be a key to mental health.

Mr Stossel notes Professor Gilbert's sense of humor but otherwise writes a cheater: read the review and you won't have to read the book.

James Campbell very nearly loses patience with Roger Angel, whose memoir, Let Me Finish, has just been published. Mr Angel, it seems, is insufficiently traumatized by a childhood in which he was abandoned to his father by his mother, Katharine White. He's simply too well-mannered.

It is hard for the reader of this likeable book to avoid seeing the insistence [upon trustworthiness] as an appeal by a writer whose trust in life's entitlements was broken early on, before he cared how privileged he was.

Mr Campbell also complains, sort of, that Mr Angell isn't as revealing about the "deeper recesses" of The New Yorker, where Mr Angell has served under all five of the magazine's editors, as he might be, because he "has to turn up for work on Monday morning."

Finally, there are seven books aimed at guys that will probably annoy or bore all other readers. They are: Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, Balco and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, and Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero, by Jeff Pearlman, both reviewed more or less favorably by Michael Sokolove; Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, by David Maraniss, favorably reviewed by George F Will (a guy with a gift for writing if there ever was one, but still a guy); Crime Beat: A Decade of Covering Cops and Killers, by Michael Connelly, given a moderate review by Charles Taylor; A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being "Deep Throat," and the Struggle for Honor in Washington, by Mark Felt and John O'Connor, unfavorably reviewed by John W Dean; and Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens, by James Dodson, and The $64 Tomato, by William Alexander, both reviewed by a much more seasoned gardener, Constance Casey.

In the Essay, "How to Sell Books by Really Trying," humorist Henry Alford recounts his efforts to sell nineteen unappealing books to passers-by in Greenwich Village.

In the end, my experience has afforded me a new vantage point on literature. What makes Iago evil? I have no idea. But what makes someone by Iago's guide to hot-waxing defunct sports cars? Preparation, Persistence. Psychological pimping. I think I'll call them the three P's.

Now can I go outside and play?


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