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Book Review

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

Commenting on my Book Review review of two weeks ago, Tom Lutz, author of Doing Nothing, chided me for being "a person lazy enough to review books by reading reviews of them" and then assured me that I would therefore find "many kindred spirits discussed" in his book. His misunderstanding is worth pointing out: I am not reviewing books here. I am reviewing the reviews that appear in The New York Times Book Review. And the undertaking has proven to be keenly instructive, which is why I devote lovely weekends to the job. (Note to self: consider publishing this piece on Wednesdays.) There are so many, many ways in which to write bad reviews!

It was, therefore, with warmly welcoming arms that I received John Updike's five rules of reviewing, published in a collection of essays, Picking up the Pieces, in 1975. John Freeman, at Critical Mass - a blog maintained by the directors of the National Book Critics' Circle - posted an entry about the rules, to which Updike appended a "vaguer sixth," and links to this entry sprouted like mushrooms. I flatter myself that I've been groping my way toward a very similar set of principles, simply because Mr Updike's rules throw into relief the objections that I have to so many of the reviews that appear in the Review. I paraphrase:

¶ Do not scold writers for failing to write the book that you have in mind.

¶ Quote amply, with at least one long passage. The quality of prose is like any other aesthetic object: it cannot be grasped indirectly. The reviewer's guarantee of great writing is empty; I have to see for myself.

¶ Back up critical judgment with specific quotation.

¶ Do not summarize the book's contents. Repeat: DO NOT SUMMARIZE.

¶ Give examples of books that succeed where, if it be the case, the book at hand fails.

As for the "vaguer sixth," I quote.

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

If these are my objectives whenever I write up a book, they're doubly binding when I review the Review. First, I judge reviews by their light. Then I try to follow them when I write, and to do so scrupulously (and at length) wherever I feel that a book of moment is under discussion.

I bought Mr Lutz's book, of course, but I wish that he'd left an e-mail address so that I could reply more personally. Personal replies will have to wait until I have finished Doing Nothing and can write to him at his publisher, FSG. 


John Updike happens to be on the cover of this week's review, at least in the form of a jolly caricature by Stephen Savage. The review of his latest novel, Terrorist, is by Robert Stone, and it's the first favorable review that I've come across. This is probably because Mr Stone takes Mr Updike's first rule very seriously.

Ahmad's religious instruction provides the opportunity from some long discourses on Islam in the modern world, one of the didactic areas of the novel that some readers may not have much patience for. But these dialogues, along with the reflections they provoke in Ahmad, serve Updike's intentions - the examination of contemporary America exposed to the passions in the non-American world.

This is just about perfect. It takes an aspect of Terrorist that many readers (and reviewers) might consider a defect, simply because they don't care to read "discourses," and instead of complaining about it reminds us that, sometimes, discourses are just what is called for. Readers who are bored by extended intellectual discussion are forewarned to seek pleasure elsewhere. Mr Stone takes Mr Updike's intentions at face value, and finds that he lives up to them ably.

Of the five other novels that are treated in four reviews, Alan Furst's The Foreign Correspondent gets the lengthiest treatment. Alex Berenson's review is just about as disappointed as all the other reviews that I've come across have been. They all say the same thing: Mr Furst is a capable and "professional" novelist, but he is no Graham Greene or John Le Carré. No sooner does Mr Furst begin to achieve a measure of celebrity than he is shot down for failing to be someone else! "Beautiful writing alone does not make a novel great." What an impossibly pretentious thing to say, assuming as it does that Mr Berenson has it in his gift to bestow the label of greatness upon a book. What Mr Berenson wants to say is that, because The Foreign Correspondent is not great, it's not any good. This is precisely the sort of review that John Updike argues against right off the bat. To make his review even worse, Mr Berenson declines to quote one of our most atmospheric writers at any length.

Jay Parini reviews two novels that, coincidentally, take off from the same bit of history: in the conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés was assisted by an Aztec princess who is now known as "La Malinche." Perhaps the joint review is a bad idea, because it's only too human to judge the book that says less to you by the light of the book that says more. Mr Parini likes Frances Sherwood's Night of Sorrows very much, finding it "a song itself. ... The linguistic and narrative riches of the book enhance its moral complexity." He provides a passage from the book that gives an idea of those "linguistic riches." I think that he ought to have been given more room in which to discuss the book, partly because he is sympathetic to it but also because a longer review would give us a better idea of his prejudices and how he handles them. We can only infer this from his dislike of Laura Esquivel's Malinche (translated by Ernesto Mestre-Reed).

Occasional flashes of poetry flicker over the mountains of abstract speculation and historical caricature; indeed, long passes of Malinche read like chunks lifted from an encyclopedia. In a typically awkward passage, Esquivel explains that her heroine "soon found that whoever controls information, whoever controls meaning, acquires power. And she discovered that, when she translated, she controlled the situation, and not only that but that words could be weapons. The finest of weapons."

This at least teaches me that my idea of "awkward" is different from Mr Parini's.

Sharing a page are Julia Scheeres's review of Don't I Know You?, by Karen Shepard, and Chelsea Cain's review of Telegraph Days, by Larry McMurtry. The first piece is generally favorable, but it consists of a botched (unintelligible) summary through which a sole ray of light is allowed to pierce:

But if Don't I Know You? fizzles as a murder mystery, it succeeds brilliantly - like Shepard's previous novels ... - as a deft study of the mechanics of compromise.

The second piece is unfavorable, but in a way that makes you wonder if Ms Cain might not be the wrong reviewer for Mr McMurtry's book. I gather that Telegraph Days isn't something of a lark, and that larks are too light for Ms Cain. She finds the heroine, Nellie Courtright, "just kind of annoying." This ought to have inspired the editors of the Book Review to seek a second opinion.


Only nine nonfiction book reviews! Imagine my delight! Where to begin?

Why not with Harold Bloom's very bad review of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Goldstein. Mr Bloom really ought not to be allowed to write reviews for the Book Review. I say that his review is very bad, but I have no idea whether it is favorable or unfavorable; Mr Bloom is too busy blustering about Spinoza and Jewishness to pause for judgment. One would not expected such a self-important blowhard to observe John Updike's rules for reviewing books, but it's clear that Mr Bloom doesn't have any rules of his own. "Read [Spinoza's] Ethics," Mr Bloom intones, "it will illuminate you, but through light with heat." Mr Bloom is all heat and no sense.

The tables are turned in Anthony Swofford's review of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, by Daniel Pinchbeck. Mr Swofford quotes enough rope to hang Mr Pinchbeck.

His descriptions of his trips are New Age narcissistic and fortune-cookie cute. Apparently, when you are mindblown on iboga, the root teacher speaks in CAPS. Among the messages Pinchbeck receives: "PRIMORDIAL WISDOM TEACHER OF HUMANITY." While on a "fungal sacrament," Pinchbeck describes the Nevada morning desert at Burning Man as "a Narnia sunrise of golden cloud fingers and taffeta swirls feather-spinning across the horizon." No thanks, dude, I'll pass on the fungal.

Mr Swofford does point out that, when he's writing about other things, such as the New York he grew up in or the degradation of Hopiland, Mr Pinchbeck's prose improves.

Sir Harold Evans's review of Public Editor #1: The Collected Columns (With Reflections, Reconsiderations, and Even a Few Retractions) of the First Ombudsman of The New York Times, by Daniel Okrent, seems to be favorable, but for the most part it is a somewhat intramural discussion of the ways a newspaper can put its high standards at risk. Then again, I can't imagine that anyone but a news junkie, a Timesophobe or a professional journalist is going to be much interested in this book.

Suzy Hansen provides an example of the reviewer who wants to be sympathetic but cannot, and who observes Mr Updike's fifth rule by holding up a book with the same general subject-matter that she really likes. That book is Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia. Casting With a Fragile Thread: A Story of Sisters and Africa, by Wendy Kann, is not, in Ms Hansen's opinion, nearly as good a book.

[H]er descriptions are methodical rather than illuminating. Her humorlessness does hint at the empty smugness of colonial life, the grim paradox of white people engaged in a fundamentally adventurous and privileged enterprise and clinging desperately to what are ultimately small and airless lives. Yet she remains oddly distant, even interested, in the deadening ugliness of oppression.

Neil Genzlinger, sharing the same page, faults Ted Steinberg's American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn for indulging in too many generalizations and too much "lazy sociology." In the end, he finds that Mr Steinberg has not written the book that he set out to write, but settled for something much less, with a fantastic chapter on lawn mowers.

There is something more complex going on in America's lawn-care psyche that Steinberg, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University, addresses. Plenty of lawn-obsessed people read the paper, have college degrees, support the Nature Conservancy; they cannot possibly think the chemicals they dump on their grass are good for their children or their wildlife or their groundwater, yet they dump them anyway. If you're one of those people, you'll get lots of interesting history and amusing anecdotes in American Green, but you won't get an explanation for your own self-contradictory behavior.

As a movie critic, A O Scott inclines naturally toward summarization, but he resists it in his review of Donald Antrim's The Afterlife, a memoir of the author's dysfunctional family, particularly his mercurial mom. Mr Scott retails plenty of anecdotes, but he uses them to highlight the "how" of Mr Antrim's book, which involves "tactical démarche the domestic unbearable to the homely absurd" that "succeeds beautifully."

In an equally sympathetic, but not quite as good, review, Adam Hochschild praises John McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, a collection of pieces about the craft of shipping freight. Mr McPhee is scrupulously apolitical in his descriptions of coal trains and diesel trucks; "his concern here is to shed light on some of the infrastructure jobs we take for granted." Mr Hochschild summarizes extensively and does not quote at length - a bad decision, given Mr McPhee's controversial reputation as a stylist of tendencies toward the infinite. How much information is too much information? Mr Hochschild does not address the soporific powers of Mr McPhee's expansiveness; he does not provide a correlative to the paragraph from Robert Stone's review, cited above, that would address an aspect of the author's work that is bound to be contentious. And the review is very sentimental about the vanishing world that Uncommon Carriers covers.

Jonathan Mahler's review of Just Americans: How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad: The Story of the 100th Battalion/442d Regimental Combat Team in World War II, by Robert Asahina, calls the book "timely, thoughtful and meticulously researched, if at times plodding." He enlarges on this thesis with summarizes and further judgments, padded by remarks on the internment of Japanese Americans living along the Pacific Coast. In short, he wanders far from the Battle of the Bulge action that is the focus of Mr Asahina's book.

What can one say of Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of "Erotica," by Geoff Nicholson? Emily Nussbaum is concise: "It's perhaps unkind, but also true, that I found myself thinking wistfully that I'd prefer to have talked to Nicholson about his book at a dinner party than to have actually read it." That's not Mr Nicholson's fault, really, as the rest of Ms Nussbaum's review makes clear.

[Mr Nicholson is] such an appealing writer that you want him to succeed. Sadly, Nicholson's chosen territory turns out to be surprisingly unsexy.

The act of collecting is objectively boring; the acquisition of a rarity will be of interest to the acquirer (and to the bested competition), but to no one else. And what could be sadder than sex made boring? The naughty attitude that will be required to make Sex Collectors a fun read is not included.

Sean Wilsey's review of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, by Alison Bechdel, makes the difficult case for the truly literary graphic (nonfiction) novel. Noting that the novel sent him to the dictionary five times, he makes it clear that Ms Bechdel's writing is not merely decorated with sesquipedalians. There is an example of the author's graphic style, too. Ms Bechdel has apparently been running an indie comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, for years; her new book addresses her father's closeted homosexuality, and the possibility that she brought his life to an end by the letter in which she came out as a lesbian to her parents. Mr Wilsey remarks on the increasing demand that memoirists act as responsible documentarians as well, and cautions against it:

Of course the true memoirist's mission, like the novelist's, is not so much establishing factuality as getting to the heart and truth of something - and there's no way to get there dishonestly. Having read Fun Home I believe that Bechdel's made the journey. But my certainty is blessedly un-fact-checkable.

(Just to clarify: the title alludes to the Bechdel family's mordant term for the mortuary business that they ran.)

Lee Siegel's Essay, "Paul Zweig's Journeys Into the Self" means to praise a "fierce man who searched for the undiscoverable place where words and experiences are one," but as an introduction to the poet, who died in 1984, the piece serves Zweig ill. It would have been wiser of Mr Siegel to provide generous samples of Zweig's writing. Written about, instead, Zweig sounds utterly impossible.


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I enjoy reviewing reviews too. I'm participating in the debate. I've come also to rely more and more on reviews (since the advent of JStor's "search" function I can easily find reviews of particular books), and realize how important they can be in how a book functions publicly; which is to say, at all.

Myself I am asked to review books for learned periodicals. I enjoy this more than essays often. I admit it's easier since I don't have to come up with the trajectory. It can take as much work if you are asked to review more than one book.

I like that series of criteria RJ and will copy and save them for the coming review of a book on women's poetry I'm about. I've done a series of blogs thinking about women's poetry (my latest is faery poetry by women). The last is as important as the others, and shows how much reviewing experience Updike has had.

Jim and I are having a pleasant summer RJ; I wrote about that too (called it "Summertime: family doings").

Thank you again for the criteria. I was sorry you never got to Jane Jacobs. I'd have followed that if you'd done it. She's great, and passing remarks are so useful. Like the importance of weak ties in life.

Regards to Kathleen,

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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