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In the Book Review

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

Fiction & Poetry

Seamus Heaney's new collection of poems, District and Circle, gets a nice review from fellow poet Brad Leithauser. Sympathetic and favorable, it begins with a paragraph about judging poets by their approach to rhyme, and goes on to suggest that Mr Heaney's rough rhymes (of which, unfortunately, he provides no examples) correspond eloquently to the Irish topography that is never far from his verse.

Heaney has always had a gift for recounting chance encounters, poignant little anecdotes. His voice carries the authenticity and believability of the plainspoken - even though (herein his magic) his words are anything but plainspoken. His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say. 

In fiction, two novels, both of South American extraction, get full-page treatment, while two novels with academic settings get reviews that share a page. And then there's Andrew Sean Greer's puzzling review of Voodoo Heart: Stories, by Scott Snyder. Mr Greer believes that the collection consists of two remarkably inventive stores and five workmanlike ones.

Snyder's true talent is revealed when he lets his imagination soar. In the final story, a young man, barnstorming his way across the Midwest, finds a runaway bride in his biplane. When he sits with her by a campfire and they invent a fictional account of their courtship and wedding - "you took my hand and we went out the bedroom window and climbed down the rain gutter together" - they transport us to the beautiful, quiet, darkened room of the best fiction. The sound of traffic disappears and time flows away and we're in the middle of that primal American narrative: the invention of the self. We read on to see if the runaway will really climb out on that airplane's wing. And when she does - "a pretty girl in a blue dress, head thrown back, the wind in her hair as she passed overhead" - the moment is pure ecstasy.

Sympathetic reviews are effective because they enter into the quality of their subject matter and so share it with the review's reader. As William H Gass says in his essay about Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (in  The Temple of Texts), quality cannot be reported. But it can be captured and presented. The paragraph that I've just quoted indicates to me that neither Mr Snyder nor Mr Greer is a writer about whom I want to know more, but that's the point. The selfsame paragraph may leap out appealingly at you.

Hugo Lindgren's review of the latest Manhattan prep school nightmare, Academy X, by Andrew Trees, is almost funny.

The first 10 or 20 pages, chockablock with strained humor and banal pronouncements..., were so dreadful that getting through this rather thin novel suddenly felt like a homework assignment from hell.

Nevertheless, Mr Lindgren

wolfed down the last 100 pages in under an hour, and though I did not feel particularly well-nourished as I closed the book, I did have the strength to live myself off the couch.

Lisa Zeider is a lot harder on Lawrence Douglas's The Catastrophist. The novel is about an art historian who, like the author, specializes in Holocaust memorials, and Ms Zeidner all but states that Mr Douglas's academic work on the subject is more interesting than the novel.

But while Daniel has his moments of dry wit ... , all the female characters, including the one whose native language is German, sound pretty much alike, and it's hard to imagine what they would see in this nail-biting narcissist.

Liesl Schillinger's review of Marie Arana's Cellophane and Pico Iyer's review of Turing's Delirium, by Edmundo Paz Soldan (translated by Lisa Carter) share a strange squint-forcing glare that I can only attribute to efforts to place these novels in the context of Latin American literature generally and in relation to magical realism in particular. Mr Iyer, while trying to show how the Bolivian Mr Paz Soldan has left magical realism behind, manages to make Turing's Delirium sound too virtual and paranoiac to be any less strange than fiction by Gabriel García Marquez. Ms Schillinger, far more sympathetic to her book, attempts to summarize Ms Arana's very strange story about an engineer who takes his family into the Peruvian jungle in order to set up a Cellophane factory, but ends up making it sound overwrought. Her review is perhaps tellingly entitled "A Wilderness of Mud."

Nonfiction

The cover of this week's review shows the head of Henry Ward Beecher, and my first thought was "Do I have to"? There's something so unappealing about Beecher's clenched jaw, sad eyes, and straying white hair that I read the pendant review very much under duress. According to Michael Kazin, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate, is an exception to the rule that "[f]ew great preachers in American history have been well served by their biographers." His review, however, makes a case for regarding The Most Famous Man as a masterwork in American studies - as much about Beecher's America as about the man himself. A whoppingly successful preacher brought low by an adultery trial, Beecher was one of the principal manufacturers of the mush of American Christianity.

Whenever you hear a sentimental sermon - whatever the preacher's denomination, race or political leanings - echoes from Beecher's Plymouth Church are actually ringing in your ears.

Richard Labunski serves up another slice of American history in James Madison and the Struggle for the the Bill of Rights, but Gary Rosen is unimpressed by the attempt to put the famously reticent and cerebral Madison at the center of a lively story. And he's not sure that Mr Labunski truly understands his subject.

But was passage of the Bill of Rights equally "pivotal"? Labunski plainly thinks so, but Madison did not. For him, amendments were largely a means to an end, a way to secure popular support for the new government, whose powers he was determined to preserve. Of Madison's view that "parchment barriers" were unlikely to stop an oppressive government or majority, Labunski is dismissive.

On the United States of today, German journalist Josef Joffe has written Überpower: The Imperial Tempation of America. Roger Cohen doesn't care for Mr Joffe's prose style (too much alliteration), and he's not terribly sympathetic to Mr Joffe's thinking, either. This dooms his review to near meaninglessness. What are we to make of this conclusion?

Überpower is a brilliant polemic for benign American centrality, a reminder that America remains a force for good in the world. But it is an unconvincing, often irksome prescription for how that can endure?

Nor did I derive much satisfaction from Stanley Fish's review of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving Left Wing Freak Show, by Geoffrey Nunberg. This extremely unsympathetic review (a form of which Mr Fish is something of a master) aims to present the book's arguments while arguing against them or finding them inadequate. The result is a mean-spirited scold.

This is not to disdain the truth: in the final analysis the question of what is true and false is paramount. But Nunberg isn't offering a final analysis here, only a rhetorical and political analysis. [?] His claim that he is allied with the truth against the forces of conservative darkness may be endearing, but it is utterly unhelpful.

And so is Mr Fish's review. As if to show how to scold with style, Jennifer Senior, writing on Friendship: An Exposé, by Joseph Epstein, asks, "How interesting can the observations of a man who avoids such entanglements be?" and then answers, "not so very." I'm afraid that my own disappointment with Mr Epstein's Snobbery infected my reading of Ms Senior's review, but I still think that she cites enough examples of Mr Epstein's retrograde mentality to show that Friendship is a book written about the Fifties, not about today. It's all right to be unsympathetic toward books that have so little raison d'être.

Alan Light gives John Strausbaugh's Black Like You: Insult & Imagination in American Popular Culture a sensitive review - sensitive, that is, to the hot-button associations that blackface minstrelsy has (rightly) taken on, after decades of condescending cluelessness. Although he believes that "[t]oo much of Black Like You is taken up with Strausbaugh's railings against multiculturalism and the language police," he concludes that

the contribution made by Black Like You far outweighs any disputes about its details. Strausbaugh has taken a disturbing piece of American cultural history and illustrated the ways that this music, for better and for worse, helped shape our world. As these songs performed for white audiences by white men painted black, based on songs sung by black men that might have been written by white men, gained popularity, he writes, "the question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt - that is it was American music."

In Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi writes (with Azadeh Moaveni) of disillusionment and worse in an apparently moving account of her career as a former Iranian judge who participated in the Islamic Revolution but soon found that women's equality with men was not an operating principle of the new regime. Laura Secor's review is very sympathetic, and furnishes abundant quotations.

What we do get is a complex and moving portrait of a life lived in truth, as Vaclav Havel would put it, within the stultifying confines of a political system intended to compel passivity. Ebadi is well aware of the compromises forced on her as she works to curb the Islamic legal system's worst excesses.

Edward Rothstein disagrees with the late Edward Said's thesis in On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, a posthumous essay cobbled together by critic Michael Wood from lectures delivered in London and classes taught at Columbia. But he does so so gracefully that one engages with the book, if only to take part in a conversation about beautiful music.

Late style, Said suggests, expresses a sense of being out of place and time: it is a rejection of what is being offered. But listen to Beethoven or Strauss or Gould: the music is more like a discovery of place. That place is different from where one started; it may not even be what was once expected or desired. But it is there, in resignation and fulfillment, that late works take their stand, where even exile meets its end.

[I must say that I was surprised by Mr Rothstein's failure to object to Mr Said's writing of Mozart's "late style." In Mozart's case, any "lateness" was purely fortuitous. Mozart did not die resigned and fulfilled; he died of overwork and something like mania. He was holding on to life a little too hard.]

Tara McKelvey reviews five books in a Nonfiction Chronicle

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, by Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward. "Her positions and reasoned and enlightened - though hardly surprising - but at times the prose evokes a Center for American Progress special report and, on other occasions, a United Nations fact sheet, filled with bland quotations, rhetorical questions and, tragically, Yeats paraphrased: 'It is when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity that things fall apart.' At this point, even a supporter of her views may wonder: Is nothing sacred?"

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty, by William Hogeland. The author "fails to make the case that the battle should have been fought - especially since the tax was repealed in 1802, 11 years after the rebellion began. Still, he conjures up a lively post-Revolutionary War world where everybody - man, woman and child - drinks hard liquor 'at all times of day'..."

Doolitle, by Ben Sisario. "A friend of mine once had a girlfriend who kept a careful diary. 'Never has so much been written about so little,' he'd say. You could say that about Doolittle, too, an entire book devoted to a Pixies album."

The Collar: A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary, by Jonathan Englert. Of Mr Englert's report (he was not himself a seminarian): "His account of their spiritual journey often seems superficial and rushed - especially considering the church's teachings on patience. Yet Englert conveys the courage and selflessness of his characters, all of whom at least try to follow St Francis of Assisi's advice: 'Preach the Gospel always - if necessary, use words'."

Possible Side Effects, by Augusten Burroughs. ["TOT" = the Triumph Over Tragedy genre so popular in women's magazines] "Yet a Burroughs essay, even at its most poignant and confessional, is the anti-TOT. Unflinchingly, he gouges himself (literally and figuratively), bleeds, gets it on paper - often without a neat resolution or the genre's obligatory epiphany - and then makes you laugh. Now that's genius."

Allen St John gives Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer's Life, by Ira Berkow, a warmly sympathetic review.

Full Swing is like a great ballpark conversation, where everything and anything is fair game. In the process of layering story upon story, connecting tangent to tangent, each memory marking the passage of time, Berkow reveals himself to be curious, contrarian and a steadfast champion of the underdog. You'll never look at his byline in quite the same way again.

Benjamin Kukel's Essay, "Misery Loves a Memoir," takes a jaundiced look at the popularity of memoirs these days.

So it is that we live in a rich and free country, full of striving individuals chasing comfort and distinction, whose autobiographical literature tells us that helpless addiction and passive suffering are the most meaningful experiences you can have.

 

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