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Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Ishmael Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006 is the subject of Joel Brouwer's review. Given a full page, Mr Brouwer does a nice job of framing a context for the contentious poet, and quotes enough verse to give a sense of what fuller exposure to Mr Reed's work might be like. Of a passage from "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra," Mr Brouwer writes,

Such a crazy quilt of references can be frustrating - my literature students frequently declare themselves equally bewitched by the poem's sounds and bewildered by its content - but it is an accurate reflection of our multifarious planet, where conflicts between nations, cultures, religions, classes, races and genders are not likely ever to be fully reconciled, but can at least be made less deadly through tolerance of difference. Reed's best poems conjure up a vertiginous, multiplicious, irresolvable and thrilling world. It looks a lot like ours.

Five novels are reviewed this week, and I must say that the reviews are a dispiriting lot. Erica Wagner tries hard to say just why she doesn't like Andrea Lee's Lost Heart in Italy, but conveys nothing more than her own irritability.

But I kept wondering why I was bothering with these people, and why the author kept feeling the need to drive her points, such as they are, home so firmly.


It's possible for a novel - and unfortunately, this is just such a novel - to be both too particular, and not particular enough.

As the literary editor of the Times of London, Ms Wagner ought to have declined this assignment, the tone of which I'm sure that she had settled within the first ten pages of Ms Lee's novel. Terrence Rafferty does even less justice to By A Slow River, by Philippe Claudel (translated by Hoyt Rogers). Everything that he doesn't like about the novel enough to quote it looks to me like the sort of thing that, while it sounds gaseous in English, tends to come naturally to French discourse.

Claudel's novel occupies a kind of misty no man's land between serious fiction and pulp.

Not a helpful remark at all. Sven Birkerts likes Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season, but - as is often the case with this reviewer - he gets lost in his own preoccupations with irony and candor, and with the supposed simplicity of life in the high plains. A review that praises an author's language ought to boast an extensive example, and I sincerely hope that there is more to Mr Doig's story than Mr Birkerts indicates.

The two novels that get more sympathetic reviews are English, August: An Indian Story, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Peter Robinson's Piece of My Heart. The latter, reviewed by Jim Windolf, is the latest in a series of police procedurals that feature Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, "a policeman with a melancholic streak working under the North Yorkshire Major Crimes unit." It looks to me as though this full-page review is designed to push Mr Robinson into the ranks of Ian Rankin and Barbara Vine as a writer of Major League Entertainment. Mr Windolf writes more about the series than about the novel at hand, although he does say that it "succeeds" as a mystery, and, for all that he has to say about the character of DCI Banks, a was unable to develop a corresponding picture. Having pointed out that English, August was first published almost twenty years ago, to great acclaim, in India, Akash Kapur jumps into the problematics of identity faced by any Indian writer writing in English while continuing to live in India. Both reviews, then, while favorable, are essentially distracted from the task at hand. 


As an admirer of Cynthia Ozick, I was not best pleased by Walter Kirn's making sly fun of her, in his review of her latest collection, The Din in the Head: Essays, but I had to admire the skill with which he takes her high regard for standards and canons, and her belief in the power of the novel, and makes them look faintly absurd, or at least very old-fashioned.

The image of the novelist as a species of intellectual royalty, administering vast realms of mental space with absolute, divine authority while resisting the claims of social relevance and popular amusement, reappears in a number of the essays, and always as something to be revered and mourned rather than archaeologically inspected. ... The novelist-emperor calls forth his subjects from his own mysterious depths, like Jove; he doesn't depend on found materials. His inventions don't reflect life, they create it, and the culture's growing doubt that such a feat is possible are a tragic measure of its diminishment.

In short: not a good review (shame, Mr Kirn!) but a lot of fun. Ana Marie Cox, leveling much the same charge (she's old-fashioned) against Katha Pollitt's Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, is amusing in a wry, self-aware manner.

But the first thing I thought when I read Pollitt deride the false consciousness of pick-ectomy patients (okay, maybe not the first) was "Does it really work?" While I hesitate to consider myself representative (and no, I would never actually do it), the ability to hold a predilection for stilettos and support for abortion rights in one's head simultaneously seems suggestive of today's compromised, complicated feminist mind-set.

Stephen Prothero is impatient with J C Hallman's The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe. He faults the author for doing what he set out to do, and not doing more, in the form of analysis.

Readers will learn that UFO believers are happy and that Satanists are actually quite nice - as a rule, Hallman is generous to his subjects - but they will learn nothing about how America's religious fringe is both sewn into and tugging against the garment of American Christianity.

As the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, Mr Prothero's complaint is unsurprising. But the editors of the Book Review ought to have sized up Mr Hallman's book as the travelogue that it seems to be, not the comparative study that Mr Prothero regrets. 

Norah Vincent's deeply unsympathetic review of Seminary Boy, by John Cornwell, is enough to make you wonder why the publisher went to the trouble to print it. Eloquent about the book's deficiencies, Ms Vincent finds only one or two attractions in Mr Cornwell's account of five years in a Roman Catholic seminary. Her insistence on the kind of book that Mr Cornwell ought to have written is almost startling.

Insight is the linchpin of a spiritual coming-of-age memoir like this. Keen, unflinching insight into abstruse matters of the soul, and this is especially true when we are talking of a journey as singular and strange, as vehemently insular, as Cornwell's. If the writer cannot give us that - if he cannot explain in sufficiently considered detail how he went from being an under-age East London thug, who took part in the gang-molestation of a girl and threw bricks at the windows of passing trains, to fervently declaring a vocation to the priesthood at 13 - then he is wasting words.

Perhaps Mr Cornwell felt that it was enough to set down the details of his "singular and strange" journey without cluttering them with interpretation. I'm not sure that I'd disagree.

Timesman Serge Schmemann believes that Geoffrey Hosking, author of Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union, ought to have ventured some prognostication about Russia's imperial future: will it have one? This despite the fact that Mr Hosking's book "builds a strong and authoritative argument that the Soviet Union was both Russian and anti-Russian." In other words, the book is not about Russia's imperial past.

David Thomson, the noted film metacritic, is so interested in the figure of Upton Sinclair that he cannot be bothered to discuss Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, by Anthony Arthur, or Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, by Kevin Mattson.

We have two new biographies on the table, beggingly lean and artfully digested, as if the publishers had told their authors: "Show some moderation. Pick out the high points. If we get a hundred kids to look at The Jungle, we'll have done honor by the old boy. How's your burger?" Both Anthony Arthur's and Kevin Mattson's books are reasonable in length and tempered in passion. Pushed to choose, I prefer Arthur's. But to feel the wonderful nut and enthusiast in Sinclair, the intrigued newcomer should read The Jungle or King Coal. Then realize that this author was a very good and ardent tennis player. Eight thousand words a day and three sets - with no tie breakers.

I doubt that Mr Arthur or Mr Mattson will be grateful for Mr Thomson's attention.

James Carroll's House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power gets a sympathetic review from Michael Tomasky. He takes the book for what it's meant to be: an argument about the moral consequences of armed intervention in other people's problems. The son of a general who was the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr Carroll grew up playing in the Pentagon occasionally, but his opposition to the war in Vietnam pitted him against his father. (It would appear that this book, like Constantine's Sword, is a mélange of the personal and the objective.) The Pentagon is the symbol as well as the fount of American belligerence (whenever the nation is at war), and Mr Carroll questions the morality of its foundations.

Learned, intelligent and thoroughly researched, House of War should be read and taken seriously by those who will disagree with its argument and who are too sure of the righteousness of their views. One can't help wishing at the same time that Carroll were a little less sure of the righteousness of his.

The most favorable review in this week's issue begins on the cover. Bruce Barcott writes glowingly of Cross Country: Fifteen Years and Ninety Thousand Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill and Elephant, by Robert Sullivan. I had a hard time getting into the spirit of the review, because I don't share the reviewer's enthusiasm about Mr Sullivan's view of America:

The America that I see is an America that tells you to keep moving, to move on to something better, to get on the road and keep going, to stop only briefly to refuel your car and yourself but then to keep pushing toward the place that is closer to where you should be, or could be, if only you would keep going. American says move, move on, don't sit still ... In other words, America is the road.

A lot of Mr Barcott's review parallels the material covered in Cross Country, instead of judging Mr Sullivan's treatment of it, so aside from telling us that Mr Barcott likes the book, the review sheds little light on it. Which is too bad; I'd have liked the most favorable review of the week to tell me more about the book. And to have been about something other than depressing hours wasted in a car on America's largely featureless highways.

This leaves two books about strange characters and a volume devoted to leatherback turtles. David Quammen follows this week's prevailing trend by wishing that Carl Safina's Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur were a different, more rousing book.

I would like to be able to tell you that this is a riveting nature book for hardheaded, skeptical people of broad interest who, ordinarily, would never read a nature book. Instead I can merely assure you that it contains some potent facts and some very nice turtles.

Sharing the same page are Polly Morrice's largely favorable review of Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, and Sarah Ferrell's bemused review of Helen Reddy's The Woman I Am: A Memoir. Miss Reddy, a former pop star, has taken up Reincarnation, and Ms Ferrell says that her chapter about how Richard III came back as the Duchess of Windsor is "not-to-be-missed." Ms Morrice does not tell us why the intelligent son of American writers would befriend a catastrophically damaged Englishman - muscular dystrophy was the least of Stuart Shorter's problems - but she expects that most readers "will appreciate Masters's moving portrait." Perhaps I should say something gratuitously negative about this book, because I'd be delighted to have Mr Masters ask me to read it and discover the error of my ways, as three authors have done since I began reviewing the Review.

According to John Thorn's Essay, "Take Me Into the Ballgame, "hardly any" of the countless books of "imaginative writing about baseball" have been good. He excepts Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc, J Henry Waugh, Prop: these two novels, instead of deforming the game into a source of metaphors, really describe playing baseball. True, baseball in the Coover book is played indoors, at a table, with dice, by a single player - an insanely prescient forecast of today's computer games.

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