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Book Review

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

Now on appearing on Wednesdays.


The novelist Fay Weldon is a gifted writer, but she also works a formula - as do many novelists, even a few at the high end. (Anita Brookner, for example.) She satirizes domestic hypocrisies, and all but mugs along with the story: "Do these people know what they sound like?" Her crazed dénouements are almost easy to swallow, and she never seems to be at risk of falling in love with her characters. What Ms Weldon is not is exploratory: she does not try out different forms. Like the (even more) gifted crime and con specialists, P D James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, Donna Leon and Carl Hiaasen, Fay Weldon writes fiction along a well-settled trajectory.

The review of the latest Weldon ought to take this into account: how's the old gal keeing up the franchise? But Ann Hodgman writes as though She May Not Leave were a one-off. None of Ms Weldon's other books is mentioned, nor their existence hinted at. Can it be that Ms Hodgman hasn't encountered Fay Weldon before? It seems hard to believe; Ms Hodgman is a wicked satirist herself. (Does anyone remember the column, published I don't know where [Spy?], in which she actually taste-tested doggy treats?) Instead of placing She May Not Leave in Ms Weldon's oeuvre, she rips off the plot and writes a pretty funny précis. Then she complains. Of the jarring effect of the novel's double ending, she writes,

In a way, this shouldn't matter: in Weldon's universe you're not required to worry about the characters. They're just figures being moved around a fairy-tale landscape. But still!

There's the suggestion of familiarity with the world of Weldon in that sweeping generalization, but the review nonetheless fails to tell me what I want to know: is the book up to form or not?

I was also confused - for the first time, by this reviewer - by Liesl Schillinger's piece on the new Monica Ali, Alentejo Blue. In Brick Lane, Ms Ali wrote one of those first novels that are so good that further efforts tend to disappoint. The review does make it very clear that Ms Ali has taken serious steps to disable comparisons: from one woman's poverty in the East End of London, she has moved on to a slice-of-life, multi-focal village in Portugal. And the new book is "a loosely interwoven collection of stories." Ms Schillinger seems reluctant to judge it. By which I mean that she seems reluctant to say that it is not a good book. "The novel isn't a failed experiment, but it is a self-conscious one." What's that supposed to mean? Ms Schillinger's last word is hardly encouraging:

In Alentejo Blue, Ali's characters are trapped in their own heads. To let them loose into the dusty streets of Mamarrosa to act and interact, rather than silently stew, would be a liberation for them - and perhaps for their author.

This makes Alentejo Blue sound suffocated, stillborn. But how can it be that if it's not a failure? This review is polite without being sympathetic.

Lauren Collins's review of Reader, I Married Him, by Michèle Roberts, is no more polite than the novel it covers, but very sympathetic. Of this tale of an English widow at play somewhere in the Mezzogiorno, Ms Collins declares, "Roberts writes with diabolical glee." Sold! That the book may be more than mere entertainment is stipulated at the end:

Roberts has committed her own furta sacra, stealing subjects traditionally reserved for "serious" literature and stealthily developing them in this frothy, ironical romantic caper. Against all appearances, Reader, I Married Him turns out to be an edifying novel of ideas.

Even better, Ms Collins does not expropriate Ms Roberts's story.

Hanna Rubin gives East Wind, Rain, by Caroline Paul, a review that is too distracted to be sympathetic. She devotes a bit too much of her limited space to recounting the real-life event that constitutes the novel's point of departure, and not nearly enough explaining why (not how) East Wind, Rain ought to have a "tragic inevitability." Ms Rubin is far more engaged by the practical difficulties faced by Ms Paul in researching her book than she is in the result. It would have been more judicious to state that the author took her inspiration from history and to have left it at that. The attempt to sell fiction on the strength of interesting facts is always misguided.


Luc Sante's review of Robert Greenfield's Timothy Leary: A Biography, is everything that a review ought to be, and then some, unfortunately. "Nearly every page is riveting in Timothy Leary, which unfolds like the great novel Sinclair Lewis might have written had he lived to the age of 120." I hope that Mr Greenfield is as thrilled as I'd be if I were in his shoes.

The world needs scoundrels because they make good copy. Leary's life was so incident-filled that it would be difficult to make it sound dull. Still, Robert Greenfield ... does a particularly good job of being at once meticulous and brisk. In addition, the book provides a crash course in several aspects of 60's culture: its often gaseous rhetoric, its reliance on mahatmas and soothsayers, its endless bail-bond benefits, its thriving population of informers, its contribution to the well-being of lawyers, its candyland expectations and obstinate denials of reality, its fatal avoidance of critical thinking, its squalid death by its own hand.

But Mr Sante - or perhaps his editors at the Review - can't resist that "good copy," and the review consists, for the most part, of a lusty account of Leary's life. I'd have admired a more serious concision here. Mr Sante appears to be flogging something here - the social irresponsibility that allowed Leary to hold the spotlight, perhaps. But again, readers are to be encouraged to buy Mr Greenfield's book because it is good, not because Leary was a character. In fact, having savaged the man with his long thumbnail sketch, Mr Sante might be hard put to explain why on earth we'd want book-length treatment. He might have done a better job of showing how Mr Greenfield turned the sordor into "the great novel Sinclair Lewis might have written."

This week's Book Review is fairly heavily weighted with biographical books. Other subjects include JFK, Bess of Hardwick (to whom Kennedy was obscurely related), the Bronfmans of the House of Seagram, Leo Strauss, and the Founding Fathers. Bess of Hardwick may be the one unfamiliar name in this list, but she's as remarkable a figure as any of the other guys. A contemporary of the Virgin Queen's, Elizabeth Hardwick married four times and managed money very well, leaving an architectural legacy part of which is still with us. Mary S Lovell's Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder gets a review that I'll call "favorable by inference." It is all about Bess, and yet Mr Goodheart fails to make an interesting connection (the source of the JFK relationship, for more of which, read the next review): One of Ms Lovell's other subjects, Deborah Mitford, married one of Bess's descendants.

How the Kennedys got to be pals with the Cavendishes is one of the many threads in Jack Kennedy: The Education of a Statesman, by Barbara Leaming. Geoffrey Wheatcroft's review is somewhat unsympathetic. It's of the opinion that the author tries to hard to push her theory, which is that the young JFK was shaped by Churchill. Mr Wheatcroft notes that "Churchill can be cited on both sides of many arguments, often misleadingly," and concludes that "Churchill deserves to be given a rest." For the rest, it tells the admittedly fascinating story of the three eldest Kennedys before, during, and right after World War II. Their father, Joseph, was US Ambassador to the Court of St James, doubtless the most shameless impersonation of his career. (He thought that the British ought to make a deal with Hitler.) His daughter, Kathleen, known as "Kick," charmed her way into blue-blooded circles, where her breezy American spirit was greatly prized by the young men. She married one of them (another son of Bess), and although devastated by the deaths of her husband and brother in 1944, she stayed on in England, involving herself with another nob, one arrogant enough to get the two of them killed in a plane crash in 1948. Meanwhile... was this book supposed to be about JFK?  

Another family to emerge from the Twenties in great shape for surviving the Depression was that of Samuel Bronfman, whom Prohibition made a rich man. The House of Seagram became positively prestigious under the guidance of his son, Edgar, but then it was doomed by the hubris (and incompetence) of Edgar Jr. Frank J Prial, sometime wine critic for the Times (alcohol is alcohol?), writes favorably of Nicholas Faith's The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram, noting that Mr Faith's "years at The Financial Times and The Economist" enable him to tell the Fall part of the story extremely well. Mostly, though, Mr Prial talks about the Bronfmans "It's still a great story."

Leo Strauss was a highly influential political philosopher at the University of Chicago in the Fifties and the Sixties. Some of his pupils, and many of his pupils' pupils, have migrated to Washington and seized power as neoliberals. They have given the man a bad name in many circles, and Steven Smith sets out to clarify Strauss' true legacy in Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism. According to Robert Alter, the book is "admirably lucid" and "meticulously argued," and it paints the portrait of a complicated man who emerged from a complicated mileiu: "1920's German Jewry." I suspect that nobody would be writing about Strauss if it weren't for the deformations wrought in his name by Wolfowitz & Co.

The Founding Fathers are the subjects of two recent books. One of them "more important" than the other, according to reviewer Jon Meacham. The important book would be Gordon S Wood's Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. The title pretty much says it all: what the Founders shared, and what motivated them to do what they did, was an obsession with Character. Mr Meacham thinks that Mr Wood does a fine job of explicating the concept of character, which was far more nuanced and complex at the end of the eighteenth century than it is now. Character, far from being the "true self" revealed under pressure, was for the Founders an objective pursued with every hope of winning fame and renown. A man of character acted well in order to be thought well of. Perhaps we're not going to have any real leaders until we give up this crap about "authenticity." We are all "authentically" crooked timber. As for Richard Brookhiser's What Would The Founders Do: Our Questions, Their Answers, the title once again speaks volumes. Mr Meacham praises it for making the Founders "accessible" - a dubious achievement - but he cannot clear the book of the pong of extreme triviality.

Finally, a book of memoirs, Joseph Volpe's The Toughest Show on Earth: My Rise and Reign at the Metropolitan Opera (written with Charles Michener). I know only one thing about Mr Volpe's reign at the Met: it made me stop wanting to go to the opera. So don't expect me to read this "self-serving" tripe. Anthony Tommasini's review of Mr Volpe's career is fawning; it tends to applaud whenever Mr Volpe acts like Rudy Giuliani. As for the memoir, there's not much to say. "When it comes to his personal life, Volpe does little soul-bearing." If I want to hear more about Joseph Volpe, he's the last person I want to hear it from.

Is our next book also a memoir? Sarah Churchwell's review convinces me that the original, British, subtitle of Justine Picardie's My Mother's Wedding Dress - The Fabric of Our Lives - is a lot more accurate than the American substitution, The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. That far I got.

A former features editor of British Vogue, Picardie uses fashion, however broadly construed, as her version of Proust's madeleine, the occasion to go in search of lost time and lost people. The result is a series of brief essays that eagerly wander down any conceptual path that can somehow be associated with style. (Or even if it can't....

Because I can't get a sense of what Ms Picardie has set out to do, I can't tell if the review is sympathetic or not. Is the book lighthearted or harebrained? If I hold the review sideways, I sense a rather funny book here, but Ms Churchwell makes no mention of wit.

Four books about "current affairs" are reviewed. Two of them would seem to be more related than in fact they are: Matthew Levitt's Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad, reviewed by Steven Erlanger, and Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges, by Gabriel Weimann, reviewed by Robert F Worth. Mr Worth thinks that Mr Weimann spends too much time on the bogus threat of cyberterrorism without coming down on one side or the other on the debates that the fear of cyberterrorism has generated. As for the role that Web sites play in spreading jihad, Mr Worth does not report anything to suggest that Mr Weimann would tell me something major that I don't already know. Frankly, so long as there are terrorist sites, I'll know that the Web is being honestly run. Inside Hamas appears, from Mr Erlanger's unsympathetic review, to be a tendentious screed that fails to explain just why Hamas has won so much public support in Palestine. "It's safe to say that Hamas won't be the last word on the subject."

Noam Chomsky isn't satisfied by calling a spade a spade; he wants to hit you with it. His Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy is an inflammatory denunciation of the United States, which is a failed state because it doesn't fails "to provide security for the population, to guarantee rights at home or abroad, or to maintain functioning (not merely formal) democratic institutions." Mr Chomsky is technically correct, in my view, but "fierce excoriation" hardly seems to be what's needed. (Is there any evidence that the Hebrew prophets were influential in their own time? Rather not.) Jonathan Friedland's sympathetic review carefully notes the book's faults (which, aside from the fierce tone, don't seem particularly serious), but concludes, 'It's hard to imagine any American reading this book and not seeing his country in a new, and deeply troubling, light." If I thought that were true, I'd give up writing about anything else.

I'd give up writing altogether if I thought that books like Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, by Jeff Goodell, were useful. I agree with all of Mr Goodell's propositions - coal is dirty, air pollution is toxic, global warming will be disastrous, and so on and so on - but I don't stop there. I want to know more about why it's going to be so difficult for humanity to reverse course on consumption and degradation. And a paleoconservative corner of my heart is glad that it will take a while for us to do anything but burn more fossil fuels: we don't know enough about either the world or ourselves to grasp a progressive solution. Reviewer Corey S Powell seems to have a much better idea of what this might be than does Mr Goodell. So I'm grateful for his review.

John Updike's Essay, "The End of Authorship," is something of a headache. One wants to say, there, there, Gramps, it's not going to be as bad as all that. It was probably a bad idea to base an essay on loopy predictions made in the previous week's Times Magazine, notoriously fertile terrain for sprouting nonsense. Kevin Kelly, of Wired, had written,

Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves.

Doubtless the technology will be there, and doubtless there will be plenty of fools to exploit it senselessly. I have found, however, that familiarity with technology gently renders my reliance upon it more sparing. I insert far fewer hyperlinks, for example, into my blog entries than I used to; I came to find clusters of them distracting, and I also found myself eager to type my own ideas into the Google search box. I could enable your ADD by linking the titles of the books mentioned here to the reviews at the Times's site; my hunch is that, if you're really interested, you'll find your way to them readily enough without the gadget. Perhaps I'm just hopelessly old - but I'm not as hopelessly old as John Updike, who cringes at the prospect of the writer as a performer. I don't care much for it, either, but thinking back on the writers whom I've heard read during the past year - Jane Smiley and Joan Didion among them - I don't think that "performance" is the word that I would use in any case. It's wonderful to hear an author read her own work; it ought to be required for every poet to record hers. Du calme, Mr Updike; du calme.


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Dear RJ,

It's really the rare novelist
who doesn't have some sort of paradigm, and the more common rated ones a formula. I tired of Anne Tyler quickly because of this, for all I very much liked the three I read.

I wish I had time for the Ishiguro. I so loved _Remains of the Day_ and have listened in on the Booker Prize group at Yahoo reading Ishiguro. I did see _The White Countess_ but no screenplay is available. I will read the comments you put up.


I really want everyone to give Anne Tyler a second (or umpteenth) chance. This latest book is so very much worth reading and is entirely enjoyable to boot. Please do yourself a favor and go back to Baltimore for her. I know this is asking a lot as I personally find Baltimore to be a total wasteland but within the realm of literature I can go there. And with Anne Tyler, it's a decent place to be. "Digging to America" is probably my favorite book of the summer.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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