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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

Planting his extraordinarily long discussion (four pages) of Richard Hofstadter at a time when active readership probably bottoms out, Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus perhaps meant to minimize the disproportionateness of his piece. He has very little to say about David S Brown's new intellectual biography of the Columbia professor, who died, relatively young, in 1970, but he has a lot of good things to say about the nature of Hofstadter's work - more inclined toward the essay than to the research monograph - and about the understandable "flip-flops" that history pushed Hofstadter into.

At this moment, when so many seek to recover that lost world or to invent an updated version of it - a post 9/11 cold-war liberalism or a reconstituted "vital center" - Hofstadter's case deserves a fresh look, for he knew very well just how fragile liberalism is, even if he sometimes mistook its prejudices for principles and its illusions for ideals.

The essay does a lot to impart a New York Review of Books gravitas to the Review. More to come?

Note to Dexter Filkins (reviewer of this week's cover story, The Looming Tower): The notion of finding dignity in death may be one of the things that Islam picked up from Christianity.

Fiction

All Things, All At Once: New and Selected Stories, by Lee K Abbott. "Despite all the loquacious banter in this impressive collection, the most important moments turn out to be the ones in which, even briefly, words weren't enough." - Meg Wolitzer.

An Iliad, Alessandro Baricco (translated by An Goldstein). "Bringing new light, new readers to a thing such as the Iliad is noble. Using it as a premise for self-indulgence is not." - Nick Tosches.

The Abortionist's Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde. "What begins as a riveting exploration of the abortion debate and its effects on a community becomes instead a more conventional account of a young woman's sexual confusion." - Danielle Trussoni.

The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. "Winsomeness can work wonders in person. Every audience waiting for the curtain to rise or the movie to begin (after all those annoying ads and previews) is a huddled mass yearning to be astonished or entertained or amused or, at the very least, diverted, given some consolation for having gone to the trouble of showing up in the first place. Solitary readers can be tougher customers, prone, for example, to grow irritable when the words on the page, unaccompanied by the physical presence and inflections of a speaker, seem flat or insipid." - Paul Gray.

Babylon: And Other Stories, by Alix Ohlin. "Readers will decide for themselves whether Ohlin's stories, upon close inspection, are made of finely woven truths or appealing fictions, but this distinction hardly matters when the book is open in your hands and Babylon is singing." - Benjamin Anastas.

Nonfiction

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9'11, by Lawrence Wright. "Wright shows, correctly, that at the root of Islamic militancy - its anger, its antimodernity, its justifications for murder - lies a feeling of intense humiliation. Islam plays a role in this, with its straitjacketed and all-encompassing worldview. But whether the militant hails from a middle-class family or an impoverished one, he springs almost invariably from an ossified society with an autocratic government that is unable to provide any reason to believe in the future. Islam offers dignity, even in - especially in - death." - Dexter Filkins.

The Shark God: Encounters With Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific, by Charles Montgomery. "Montgomery grapples with the Christian-pagan collision, which he sees by turns as a "train wreck of faiths," a "psychospiritual Disneyland" or "spiritual acrobatics." His gaze soon begins to shift from the differences between Christianity and the islands' religious beliefs to their similarities, most important, their shared belief in miracles." - Holly Morris.

Millennium Park: Creating a Chicago Landmark, by Timothy J Gilfoyle. "What Gilfoyle does not say (and perhaps doesn't see) is that a park financed by donors given the power to select objects and artists will look very different from one in which aesthetic or social concerns predominate from the first. It will tend to be less a unified landscape that a series of detached vignettes - in effect, naming opportunities." - Michael J Lewis.

Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, by John Pomfret. "The issue of whether China chooses to confront its past or continues 'hiding behind history' will almost certainly end up being as important to its future as all the foreign investment, technology transfers, IPOs and high-rise buildings that now so impress visitors and eclipse the past. As one former classmate, a Red Guard who beat and tortured supposed 'class enemies' during the Cultural Revolution, candidly asks Pomfret: 'How do you think a society where that type of behavior was condoned, no not condoned, mandated, can heal itself? Do you think it ever can?'" Orville Schell.

Spoiling for a Fight: The Rise of Eliot Spitzer, by Brooke A Masters. "The most significant chapters of Spitzer's life are probably yet to be written. This diligent midlife appraisal charts his direction, and suggests he will continue to defy conventions. But will he, as Teddy Roosevelt commanded, continue to 'dare mighty things'?" - Joe Conason.

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, by Alexandra Robbins. "Some readers will undoubtedly mine The Overachievers for hints on how the Teacher's Pet got into Middlebury early, or why a student with the ideal transcript was wait-listed at Yale. They will miss the point. These kids may have learned how to play the game, but as Robbins makes clear, it's time to change the rules." - Eugenie Allen. 

The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Sergio Berlusconi, by Alexander Stille. "Stille notes that the more television people watched, the more inclined they were to vote for Berlusconi, as if they were all but brainwashed into submission." - Rachel Donadio.

Hollywood Jock: 365 Days, Four Screenplays, Three TV Pitches, Two Kids, and One Wife Who's Ready to Pull the Plug, by Rob Ryder. "Ryder may struggle to keep his anecdotes on course, but he has no trouble keeping track of the people he's worried about offending. He spends a lot of time trashing Hollywood and then backtracking into blanket apologies." - Mark Kamine. 

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S Brown. "Brown admirably balances respect for his subject with critical distance and persuasively makes the case that the ambiguousness of Hofstadter's writing is inseparable from his continuing interest." - Sam Tanenhaus.

Joe Queenan's Essay, "Why I Can't Stop Starting Books," gets right to the bottom of the modern reader's problem:

I used to think that I kept stopping and starting books because I could never find the right one. Untrue. All these books are the right one. It's the fact that all these books are generally so good that makes me stop reading them, as I am in no hurry to finish; the bad ones I whip through in a few hours."

 

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