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Book Review

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

Back to normal, only better than usual.


Lorraine Adams is so enthusiastic about Julia Glass's Three Junes that I thought I'd better read it, and soon, but the book under review, which received  somewhat less favorable coverage, is The Whole World Over, Ms Glass's new novel. Ms Adams finds that Ms Glass is a fine storyteller who oughtn't to have thought that she needed to pad her novel with lots of dogs and lots of cakes - even if a pastry chef is her principal character.

Glass is too capable to need recipes and four-legged friends to make her fiction a pleasure. It's a tribute to this unassuming but conspicuously talented novelist that even with far too many of them, The Whole World Over so often manages to sing.

What is it about Michel Houellebecq? How does he entrance his reviewers into calling him a genius even though they can't find positive things to say about his work? Stephen Metcalf gives The Possibility of an Island (translated by Gavin Bowd, a bit of information missing from the Review) an absolutely addled review. Here's a snippet:

Of course Daniel is simply the French cliché, a man who mistakes his own sexual vanity for the human condition. But he is an enormously entertaining cliché. In one excruciating set piece, Daniel wanders among an orgying throng of young bodies "like some kind of prehistoric monster with my romantic silliness, my attachments, my chains." He has become the worst possible middle-aged Pantaloon, the old guy at the party.

That's supposed to be entertaining? Les particules élémentaires is the only French novel that I've ever put down not because it was too difficult but because it wasn't difficult enough - to conceal its misanthropic mediocrity. Nothing that any reviewer has said since has inched me any closer to giving M Houellebecq a second chance.

Tim Parks is an English writer who lives in Verona for decades. I've read short pieces here and there, but never anything as long as a book, and I must say that Daniel Soar makes Rapids, his new novel, sound enticing. Putting a bunch of affluent in kayaks and sending them down rushing streams to disaster isn't my cup of tea, but these bare elements are so American that I'm curious about how they'll read when the people are European and the streams Alpine. Mr Soar makes "this very clever book" sound like a very rapid read.

If you've stumbled upon a box of photographs belonging to semi-distant relatives, you might want to do what Frederick Reuss does in Mohr. Max Mohr was a Jewish doctor (and correspondent of D H Lawrence) who up and left his wife and daughter in Bavaria and settled down in Shanghai, where he was murdered in 1937. Mr Reuss, a nephew of sorts, has used Mohr family photographs to construct a novel of sorts. Geoff Nicholson likes the book: "It is a story about love, without being a love story, and a novel about politics whose central character is apolitical: quite an achievement.

If E Lynn Harris has been reviewed in the Review before, I've missed it. Troy Patterson is scathing about Mr Harris's latest, I Say a Little Prayer. Having said of A Love of My Own, Mr Harris's last book, that "Little of it would embarrass Danielle Steele," Mr Patterson plows on:

The same cannot be said of I Say a Little Prayer, which stands as evidence that the cost to Harris of his prominence has been the near-complete betrayal of his talent.
Despite feeble hints that it has something to say about gay rights or the culture of megachurches, I Say a Little Prayer is mostly about food.
The effect is of John O'Hara, a famously clueless brand-name-dropper, getting updated as smooth jazz.

Nasty work, but someone's got to do it. Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, fares little better at the hands of Claire Dederer, whose short review of his new book, The Poe Shadow, does everything it can to steer prospective readers away. Here is how it ends:

With its bewildered narrator and its attempt to marry the rational and the spooky, The Poe Shadow seems to be modeled on Poe's own writing, but it's missing a crucial element: brevity. Although Pearl has a real affinity for 19th-century America, he overwhelms the strengths of his book with a hurricane of ersatz Victorian prose. He doesn't just disinter Poe's story; he disinters the language of Poe's time. After a while, you feel like you're trapped in a sepia-toned faux-daguerrotype [sic]. Pearl has created a museum rather than a world. And no one lives in a museum.


Two loners get the splashiest reviews this week. On the cover, Tom Bissell praises The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart. Mr Stewartwalked across Afghanistan a few years ago (after 9/11), in the winter no less, and he lived to tell the story. The result is "a flat-out masterpiece."

Stewart is a rarity among travel writers: he's not much interested in telling us about himself. He says he promised his mother this would be his last journey and he'd come home if he didn't get killed, and that's about as confessional as he gets. (You have to suspect that he wasn't entirely straight with his mother: his second book, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq will be published in August.)

Harper Lee, lately of Capote fame, is the subject of an unauthorized biography by Charles Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Here is what reviewer Garrison Keillor has to say about the book:

Charles Shields is a former English teacher who taught Harper Lee's book, and a scrupulous journalist who respects the lady's privacy even as he opens up her life. This biography will not disappoint those who loved the novel and the feisty, independent, fiercely loyal Scout, in whom Harper Lee put so much of herself.

And that is all that Mr Keillor has to say about Mockingbird. The rest of the not-so-short review retails Ms Lee's current life in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born eighty years ago, and her past life in New York City, where she struggled for about ten years, before producing her famous novel. I can't stand this sort of thing, because it's impossible to distinguish what Mr Keillor learned from the biography and what he already knew as a literary insider. He simply refuses to engage with the book. Instead, he follows the passage I've quoted with "If you were going to draw a movie from this book..." [emphasis added]

Peter Keepnews writes a much better review of Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan, by James Maguire. He notes the author's "often shaky grasp of details" but he also expects that the book will reward "anyone interested in what made this unlikely star, and the institution he created, run." It never occurred to me until I read the review that Ed Sullivan's career was surprising, given that he was "seemingly devoid of charm, charisma or any discernible talent." Ed Sullivan was simply an institution, a Gibraltar of television. Among the kids I knew, anybody who took a stab at doing impressions did the same Ed Sullivan act: once you knew how to say "rilly big shoe" while lurching your shoulders forward and shoving your hands into your pockets, you were on your way.

In 1980, Bette Davis invited Charlotte Chandler to write a book about her. Stephanie Zacharek's review does not say why it has taken Ms Chandler so long to write The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis; Davis has been dead for almost seventeen years. But she likes the book overall. Bette Davis was a very witty woman in real life ("I live in the present tensely"), and since so much of the book quotes her, it can hardly fail. Ms Zacharek does complain about Ms Chandler's organization of the material, which makes for a sluggish fourth quarter.

On the autobiographical front, we have The One That Got Away: A Memoir, by Howell Raines. Hal Espen looks at the book as something of a purge, a continuation of the very successful Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis that veers unpleasantly into a sour-grapes account of his downfall at The New York Times.

Both in his Atlantic Monthly [sic] after-action report and here, Raines has remained doggedly inadequate to the task of shedding real light on how a man with one of the most supple and knowing minds in American journalism ended up with Doesn't Get it stamped on his forehead.

Peter Beinart, the young editor at large at The New Republic, has just published The Good Fight: Why Liberals - and Only Liberals - Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. Joe Klein likes it, liking in particular the humility that has allowed Mr Beinart to recognize that he was wrong to support our Iraqi misadventure. Mr Klein also agrees with Mr Beinart's thesis: by returning to the liberal outlook developed during the Truman Administration, the United States could do good in the world and make friends.

Beinart's argument for a return to a more judicious American idealism seems essential. The world's problems will not be solved by authoritarians or, in most cases, by a superpower acting alone. If President Bush is right when he says democracy is the truest path toward global stability, he is wrong when he calls freedom a "gift from the Almighty." Beinart knows that freedom is a struggle, not a gift, and that democracy is an achievement, and not always attainable.

Now, if only The New Republic will follow Mr Beinart's lead on Iraq, I can resume a subscription.

Penguin is kicking off its History of American Life series with James Campbell's Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. Raymond Arsenault gives it a favorable review.

Campbell is a master storyteller who engages the reader in the human drama of American blacks confronting cultural realities that do no always square with the myths of an imagined native land. From the repatriation of former slaves in the early years of the United States to the recent heritage tourism featuring Goree Island and other slave-trading sites, Campbell provides an artful reconstruction of the often bittersweet experience of return and reunion.

Proust at the Majestic: The Last Days of the Author Whose Book Changed Paris is one of those books that suffers from an overreaching title. Surely we have reached the point at which such gaudy promises fail to lure readers? "Changed Paris"? I don't think that Proust would be happy to hear the imputation; if anything, he wanted to get it down on paper (which is pretty much what he did). Richard Davenport-Hines roots his "series of tangents" about Proust in a dinner party given at the Hotel Majestic by a wealthy American couple after the premiere of Stravinsky's Renard, in 1922. It appears that anyone on the avant-garde was invited. I've long since heard that Proust shared a taxi with James Joyce afterward and that, hardly surprisingly, the two men did not hit it off. Proust died months, not days, later. Reviewer Daniel Swift finds the sum to be much smaller than the parts - often the sign of a good read.

Funny man Joe Queenan thinks that it is very silly of Gavin Pretor-Pinney, in The Cloudspotter's Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, to compare a rare cloud form known as the Morning Glory to Cher.

At this point, the already apprehensive reader realizes that he has fallen into the clutches of one of the publishing world's most diabolical creatures: the wise-cracking pop scientist. Desperate to share his fetishist's obsession with clouds, but not entirely sure he can hold the reader's attention by discussing their varieties, chemical composition and mythology, Pretor-Pinney repeatedly hams things up with that maddening cuteness we have come to associate with Discovery Channel sages.

Mr Queenan also thinks it very odd of Mr Pretor-Pinney to assume that, the more one knows about clouds, the more interesting they become.

Jonathan Miles tells us that Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement is a "work of maintenance" on The Walls Around Us: The Thinking Person's Guide to How a House Works, and not a renovation. I considered buying Walls when it appeared in 1991. I was a thinking person who owned a home. And the author, David Owen, lived just a few towns away in the same Connecticut County. I decided that I didn't want to know. I relied on an excellent carpenter to indulge my folie de bâtir. Mr Owen is still making trips to the lumberyard, and still extolling the beauty of his power tools, but he's no longer the young man that he was fifteen years ago.

Mark Costello is keen on Junk Mail, a collection of "short writings tightly bound by the  famous fetishes of [Will] Self: God, the body, cycles of personal and cultural addition." The reviewer is surprised to find that, as an interviewer, Self is "not a rude boy or snark artist but a sympathetic ear."

If Self's reviews and profiles have a running theme, it's this: Fame is a poison to the creative soul. Some survive it and some don't, but everyone Martin Amis and Damien is sickened by the dose.

Let that be a consolation to the rest of us.

In a Science Chronicle, Peter Dizikes rounds up four recent titles, three of them concerning the science of evolution.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade. "Timely and informative."

Darwinian Fairy Tales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution, by David Stove. "Although Stove's book preceded the evidence of continued human evolution that Wade cites, it is unlikely that Stove would have been convinced. In his view, no genetic theory of behavior adequately describes everyday life, so changes in our DNA would still say nothing about the apparent human exception to evolution." [Stove = nutcase]

Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. "In a more grounded conclusion, Haupt makes a plea for the continued relevance of fieldwork in biology: if looking long and hard at nature worked for Darwin, it can work for us.

What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, edited by John Brockman. "For all the political turbulence surrounding science today, virtually none of the 109 essays reflect on the status of the scientific enterprise itself. I believe, though I cannot prove it, that scientists need to explain their work more clearly to the public."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Under Western Eyes," concerns the awkwardness with which Western writers are trying to grasp the fundamentalist mindset that inspires terrorism. Looking at writers from John Updike to Yasmina Khadra, Ms Donadio finds that strong religious feeling seems to play only a minor role in motivating young men and women to radical extremism.

I have saved for last a book that I ordered moments after reading its review by Kathryn Harrison: The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, by Ann Fessler.

Ann Fessler was nearly 56 when she first met her biological mother, who was 75. By then Fessler had already collected more than 100 oral histories for The Girls Who Went Away. She knew that those girls - pregnant, frightened, and coerced into surrendering their babies for adoption - never came back from the experience, not really.

I have no intention of seeking out my birth parents (although my daughter has expressed a medical interest in the matter). One family was enough. I have pretty much settled all the disturbances that were caused by growing up without any biological relatives, and I am grateful for the material good fortune that it was my luck to land. But I am also grateful that, long after the death of both adoptive parents, the charade of "passing" is over. I cannot use the phrase "my parents" without encountering an inner resistance, a conviction that I never had any parents at all. And I have learned that good intentions and a desire to love are never enough to support a child. I will read Ms Fessler's book to confirm what I have always suspected: that it was even harder to be on the other side of the transaction, the girl who "got away" with a hidden pregnancy because, like my mother, she was sent off to a charity in New York City for the months that her unwonted condition "showed."

One benefit of Roe was that it dried up the supply of white babies like myself, forcing parents who really wanted to have children in their house to search abroad and to "settle" for babies that would not, as I did, grow up to resemble one of their parents so closely that friends would doubt the adoption. The difference is out in the open, not a secret that leads to disappointment. Today's adoptive parents can't help seeing that their children are different. All children are different. But my parents, in getting away with children who looked like them, were lulled into thinking that we were like them inside as well. And that we none of us were.


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Having read both Julia Glass novels, I have to say that Lorraine Adams is mistaken. "The Whole World Over" is a better book than "Three Junes." And I have it from an extremely credible source that the Scottish bits in "Three Junes" are completely unrealistic. That said, I think Julia Glass is fantastic and as further recommedation, I have a friend in NOLA who has read it who said it was the first book she read since Katrina that completely distracted her from real life in NOLA. I think that says it all. And hey, I like reading about making cakes! It's a beautiful book.

OK, I'm going to pipe in again (from Paris at that!) and say that I think you should also read the new Anne Tyler to see how families negotiate these new adoptions and how it forces everyone to rethink their notions of family, identity, nationality and more.

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