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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

The lone book of verse reviewed this week is Franz Wright's God's Silence. Langdon Hammer makes Mr Wright out to be someone very unhappy with life on earth, at least in the absence of God.

God keeps silent, but his silence is resonant. Wright hears in it an anticipation of the end of things, an apocalyptic release (desired, not dreaded) from the tragicomic suffering and injustice that is his vision of life in American today.

And there are only two full reviews of novels. Anna Shapiro's Living on Air gets half a page from Kaiama L Glover, who summarizes the book's plot before closing in on its prose.

Unlikability may be the province of all adolescent girls, but Maude's spills over into the narration itself. The result is a novel that in many ways preens and poses as much as its off-puttingly precocious heroine. Like Maude, Shapiro has a bit too much to say about everything...

Adam Begley is a lot more enthusiastic about George Saunders's collection of "stories," In Persuasion Nation. I put scare quotes around "stories" because Mr Saunders seems to me to be creating something new, something that is neither fact nor fiction. His work is more artistic than literary: he compels you to see and to feel very strange things, while inner realities are banal at best, and moral responses are quite rare. I think that Mr Saunders is a genius at doing whatever it is that he does, and I don't share Mr Begley's fear that he "is in danger of becoming a dependable brand name." I'm not sure that Mr Begley is "worried" about anything, either. His essay is good, if brief, literary criticism.

Michael J Agovino's Fiction Chronicle rounds up five novels.

The Suitors, by Ben Ehrenreich. This spin on The Odyssey, from Penelope's point of view, is "a fantastic hodgepodge. At times it's smart and postmodern in a puckish, Calvino-like sense. At other times, it's just pretentious and smarter-than-thou, and entitled and smug in a McSweeney's sense... One thing's certain: Ehrenreich writes with an ease and pure line-by-line skill that's rare. This ultimately bails him out." (But what is "line-by-line skill"?)

The Ministry of Pain, by Dubravka Ugresic (translated by Michael Henry Heim). Having sketched the shortcomings of this story of a Croatian woman in exile in Amsterdam, Mr Agovino writes, "This is all countered, however, by paragraph after startling paragraph of heightened, philosophical musings. ... Lucic [the narrator] knows her people, and hates them - but loves them more. Which is why the narrator and, one senses, the author, is heartbroken. This is a work that comes from the gut, one that deserves to be read."

Visigoth: Stories, by Gary Amdahl. "Amdahl considers, often in high style, the sometimes diabolical nature of men, a big theme and done to death, sure, but rarely in such off-kilter tones." An illustrative quotation would have been helpful here, but instead Mr Agovino gives a list of Mr Amdahl's apparent influences.

The Mercy Room, by Gilles Rozier (translated by Anthea Bell). Mr Agovino finds that the suppression of the narrator of this novel's gender hurts more than it helps. "What's best is contemplating the narrator's motives, her (or his) ambivalence about - or, scarier, indifference to - the whirling horrors. The obfuscation only undermines it."

The Memory Artists, by Jeffrey Moore. "This is a rich book, erudite and funny, as much about brain chemistry, the wellness industry and poetry as it is about memory. Rich, but some parts feel too much like a situation comedy, and there are too many gimmicks - different fonts, illustrations, news clipping, footnotes. Yet The Memory Artists is a pleasure to read; it's strangely uplifting to spend time with these flawed but humane characters."


The best nonfiction review is Pete Hamill's piece about David Remnick's Reporting. Summoning Ezra Pound's dictum that "Literature is news that stays news," Mr Hamill praises Mr Remnick's unusual decision to continue the practice of reporting even while he edits The New Yorker. Writing about people, not late-breaking stories, Mr Remnick doesn't face the deadlines that dogged his early years at the Washington Post, but he retains the journalist's skepticism.

He has no interest in being a court painter to the powerful and makes certain to note the political warts of even those people he most admires (Natan Sharansky, Vaclav Havel, Oz). He goes places, talks to many people (including the wives of his subjects) and comes back to tell his readers what he has learned. And like any reporter who learned from what he experiences, he knows that the world contains very few saints.

On the facing page, Barry Gewen tries to come to terms, not so much with the subject of his review, David Cesarini's Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a "Desk Murderer" as with the thought of Hannah Arendt. Getting to the bottom of Mr Cesarini's felt need to replace Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, Mr Gewen isolates a single but important difference: Arendt considered the Holocaust "a crime against humanity, perpetrated upon the body of the Jewish people."

Her thought tended to move from individuality to universality without passing through the communal, lived world that provides most people with their sense of identity. Such radicalism is what gives her writing its power, but also what makes it so troubling. "I have never in my life 'loved' any people or collective - neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love 'only' my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons." This is a statement that manages to be both warm and chilling at the same time.

Doubtless because, in this regard, I'm wired just like Hannah Arendt, I don't know what Mr Gewen is complaining about. In any case Mr Cesarini's book get lost in the dust-up; Mr Gewen never delivers a judgment of his attempt to displace Arendt.

Like Hannah Arendt, Amartya Sen is a true cosmopolitan: he sees through cultural identity to the individual. In Identity And Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he urges us to recognize that everybody participates in several group identities, and to put the narcissism of small differences behind us. Reviewer Kenji Yoshino faults Mr Sen for failing to explain the power of that narcissism and the difficulty of getting beyond it.

The strength of Sen's argument lies in its intuitive nature: "In our normal lives we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups." Its weakness lies in its failure to explain why, at critical junctures, we disown that knowledge. Is it because human cognition tends to trade in binaries? Is it because violence creates identity as much as identity creates violence? Is it because human beings fear the choices or solitude a more cosmopolitan outlook would force them to face? These and other possibilities go unexamined.

Which is a shame. For my part, I go for the "fear of choices" option. Sometimes I think that the cosmopolitan outlook simply requires a rather high IQ.

Robert Wright reviews two new books about anti-Americanism around the world, Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century, by Julia E Sweig, and America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked, by Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes. Aside from faulting Mr Kohut and Mr Stokes for attributing the reserve of most Americans to broadmindedness instead of apathy, Mr Wright likes both books, and for the most part his review recapitulates their theses. I would call this, therefore, an "occasional" review, one in which the writer makes use of books as a pretext to exhort the reading public.

So history has put America in a position where its national security depends on its further moral growth. This is scary but also kind of inspiring. Maybe the term "American greatness" needn't have the militaristic connotations lately attached to it. Here, perhaps, is an exceptionalism worth aspiring to. But if we succeed, let's try not to brag about it.

In his review of Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War With Militant Islam, by Mark Bowden, James Traub magisterially wishes that the book were written by an older writer, preferably one of the American hostages who were knew the territory much better.

The captors volunteered much less to Bowden than did the hostages, and because he is not deeply versed in Iran's history and culture, he cannot guide us through the country as a John Limbert or Michael Metrinko could have done.

As for anything that the events of 1979 might teach us, Mr Traub cautions:

The students [who occupied the American embassy] wanted to say something to America and the West; that's why they argued with the hostages rather than beheading them. The terrorists who plant bombs on the London subway have nothing to say. They cannot be negotiated with.

There are four history books in this week's Review, and two of them have slavery at the center. Strangely, these reviews, by Ira Berlin and David S Reynolds respectively, seem unaware of each other. One, it's true, is a very generalized book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis, while the other is confined to the eighteenth-century Brown brothers of Providence, Rhode Island. Reviewing Sons of Providence: the Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, by Charles Rappleye, David S Reynolds takes a few words to praise Mr Rappleye's scholarship and writing, but for the most part summarizes the story of John and Moses Brown, who came to differ quite sharply about slavery. John, who upheld it, "predicted that it would lead the nation to civil war." According to Ira Berlin, Inhuman Bondage sheds a good deal of light on the process by which New World slavery, to which Europeans and Native Americans were initially subjected, became synonymous with the bondage of Africans.

Davis follows the large story of slavery into all corners of the Atlantic world, demonstrating that hardly anyone or anything was untouched by it. He is particularly interested in the way ideas shaped slavery's development. But Inhuman Bondage is not a history without people. Princes, merchants and reformers of all sorts play their role, though, sensibly, Davis gives pride of place to the men and women who suffered bondage.

May the ongoing tragedy of African slavery someday yield a peaceable catharsis. The tragedy of Native American extinction has produced an only slightly less complex problem, one that South and Central American republics are beginning to grapple with in an open way. Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America, by Paul Schneider, retails the colossal failure of one venture to reduce Native Americans to slavery. Candice Millard is moderately enthusiastic about the book (she believes that many of the details ought to have been presented in footnote form, so as not to obstruct the gripping narrative), but for the most part she's eager to tell the story, first officially told by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca in 1537: "a nearly 500 year-old tale of disaster, misery, and the wages of greed and arrogance." It is almost funny to read that Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved himself, by the native Floridians. Four out of 400 adventurers survived, and Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain via Mexico.

Even more difficult to compute is the story apparently told by Terri Jentz in Strange Piece of Paradise. In 1977, she and another Yale undergraduate were run over by a high-clearance pickup truck as they slept in a tent, after which the driver of the truck mauled them with an axe.

Imagine that it had been Truman Capote himself who'd been savaged in Holcomb, Kan., and that he had survived to describe his ordeal. That is the level of command and sinew at work in the writing.

That's Mary Roche, waxing enthusiastic about this week's cover story. I expect that we'll here more about this book.

Back to history, though, and A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, by Catherine Allgor. Mary Beth Norton feels that Ms Allgor overstates her case for Dolley Madison, at least at times, but concludes,

In this evocative study a remarkable woman, creator of the "first lady" role, comes vividly to life.

Indeed Dolley Madison was the first to show how necessary women have been to the proper functioning of Washington as a political complex. Without them, the men would simply slaughter one another.

I've read a lot about On The Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, by Marshall Berman, and almost all of it has sighed with disappointment. I suppose that New Yorkers are very possessive about this protean space, which the Times deserted decades ago and which is wholly and utterly lacking anything that could be called a "square" (unlike, say, Madison Square). David W Dunlap, in any case, damps his sense of Mr Berman's book's shortcomings until the end, where he makes a crack that doesn't really need to be explained:

It's one of the few times in the book you wish he had said more.

Ron Powers shakes his head ruefully over Bill Carter's Desperate Networks.

Now, here is material begging for a topical satire on a grand scale: glittering self-importance, inflated reputations, swagger and ruthless aggression, all masking a collective, underlying fear of failure and aversion to the new. Paddy Chayevsky, Tom Wolfe - heck, Michael Moore - would have braided these jumbled threads, selected a few main characters, polished the story line and created a parable of American entertainment emperors, impeccably tailored but without clothes.

Not Carter.

It seems that Mr Carter is awestruck by the would-be ninjas who run the networks - he doesn't get the "would-be" part. Boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, according to Dave Anderson, has a lot more on the ball in Atlas: From the Streets to the Ring: A Son's Struggle to Become a Man. Mr Anderson is particularly happy about what I think must be the book's principal virtue:

It's all here - the good, the bad and the ugly of Teddy Atlas, often rendered in a crude but convincing street language, captured so faithfully and so forcefully by his collaborator, Peter Alson.

Roy Blount Jr reviews Double Lives: American Writers' Friendships, by Richard Lingeman, with moderate enthusiasm. Aside from noting Mr Lingeman's "detached judiciousness, Mr Blount doesn't say much about the book, but simply poaches amusing anecdotes about literary insecurities and indignations. I remain unpersuaded that Double Lives is not just another one of those books-about-books that flatter the reader for his interest in reading. Since nobody out of school reads for duty, this is an unworthy subject.

Alvin and Heidi Toffler are back, with Revolutionary Wealth, a book that in Nick Gillespie's description comes across as blithely optimistic. Potential catastrophes - depression, war with China - are noted, but the Tofflers are out to celebrate "knowledge-based wealth."

Just as important, the Third Wave wealth system "demassifies production, markets and society," creating space for unending experimentation, innovation, and individuation.

Not if the corporations can help it. They seem to figure not at all in the pages of Revolutionary Wealth. What is the point of such a book?

Finally, John H Summers Essay, "The Deciders," is about C Wright Mills, author of 1950's bombshell, The Power Elite, and the subject of a book that Mr Summers is writing. Mills believed that American power is wielded by a small coterie of generals, CEOs and politicians. That may not be the case, but I'm inclined to agree, nevertheless, that the idea that public opinion shapes political action is "a set of images out of a fairy tale." That's because so many Americans seem to terribly apathetic about public affairs - except for the most provincial questions. I would say that the Power Elite and our various military uniforms are the only agencies of national cohesion. I don't see anything paranoid in that. Thomas Jefferson was right: big republics don't work. Ours certainly hasn't.


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