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In the Book Review

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

May I just take a second to complain about subtitles in which X is the making of Y? Such statements usually stretch plausibility beyond the snapping point. Also: one does not forge pathways.

There are more than a few poor reviews to wade through, this week, but there are some good ones, too. Just this once, I've made it a snap for you compare the Book Review's reviews with Janet Maslin's reviews in the Times proper. In both cases, Ms Maslin does the better job.

Fiction & Poetry??

Joel Brouwer's review of Scar Tissue, Charles Wright's latest volume of poetry, is almost unintelligibly insidery. "Wright's paradoxical sentiments come wrapped in gently meandering lines and sentences that seem not to want to end lest they appear to conclude." I think I know what that means, but "conclude" seems deliberately arch. I am not sure that Mr Brouwer recommends the book.

So much for poetry. Eleven novels are reviewed (ouf!). The first, The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Bouillier (translated by Lorin Stein), is billed as a memoir by Erica Wagner, who finds it "endearing." The book is apparently the novelization of an episode in the writer's life. Noting that the novel has been "fluently and colloquially translated, Ms Wagner writes, "This is the theme of this work, the will to find connections, to believe in something other than random suffering."

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon's new novel, gets a favorable review from David Kamp.

But Haddon is too gifted and too ambitious to write a hacky second novel. In fact, he's so wondrously articulate, so rigorous in thinking through his characters' mind-sets, that A Spot of Bother serves as a fine example of why novels exist.

Anyone who liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time but who "isn't sure" about how well Mr Haddon might follow that hard act will probably come down for the new book on the basis of Mr Kamp's enthusiasm. Lizzie Skurkick's baffling review of Pagan Kennedy's Confession of a Memory Eater, in contrast, kicks up a cloud of dust. Because her sentences make sense internally but don't really connect with their neighbors, I'd have to type quite a bit of blather to convey the full opacity of the review. You'll have to take my word for it.

Terrence Rafferty's review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: Twenty-Four Stories, by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin) is everything that it ought to be, lucidly setting forth the nub of Mr Murakami's fictional impulse. The stories in this collection, he writes,

seem to speak with one, very seductive, voice. That voice, in each of these wildly varied excursions into the strange, dim territory of the self, says that someone named Haruki Murakami is still looking, quixotically, for something less fragile, less provisional than the usual accommodations we make do with on the road. These are just 24 of the places where, one time or another, he thought he might find it.

I only wish that Mr Rafferty had explained away the wry disingenuous that I taste in every paragraph of Mr Murakami's work. Am I just being paranoid?

Ada Calhoun's ruthlessly dismissive review of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder is so devastating - although the book is "a page turner," it is "both smutty and pretentious" - that I wondered if Janet Maslin mightn't have been a more sympathetic reviewer of this popular book in the Da Vinci Code mold. Ms Maslin, however, reviews books for The New York Times, not for The New York Times Book Review. In fact, she has reviewed the book for the newspaper, and, not surprisingly, she's a great deal more sympathetic, while at the same time just as clear about the book's breezy qualities - which simply reduce Ms Calhoun to dyspepsia. (Because I think that it would be instructive to read both reviews, I include a link to the Book Review.) I am no more tempted to read The Interpretation of Murder by Ms Maslin's sunny reception, but it leaves a much nicer taste in my mouth.

You can play the same game with The Meaning of Night: A Confession, by Michael Cox, only in this case, the Review's piece, by Susann Cokal, is the favorable one. Her summary of the novel's plot does not incline one to agree with her praise of it; rather the reverse. For once, I must quote Ms Maslin:

Instead he is eager to use words like vouchsafe as liberally as possible, so that “The Meaning of Night” has the ornate, curlicued linguistic niceties of a Dickensian period piece. Such affectations have the potential to be either voluptuously pleasing (as they were in Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal and the White” and Sarah Dunant’s “In the Company of the Courtesan”) or arduously contrived (Elizabeth Kostova’s “Historian”). But in Mr. Cox’s version they are oddly colorless. Images like that of “the usual metropolitan bustle, the familiar panorama of unremarkable people doing unremarkable things,” are captured all too well.

You decide.

Neil Gordon's surprisingly important review of The Mission Song, by John le Carré, sets out to debunk the idea that Mr le Carré lost his footing when the Wall came down.

Read closely, le Carré's brilliant George Smiley novels are much less about spies than about the fundamental evil of cold-war-era politics. That these dense, often demanding, unexpectedly radical books have been the recipients of phenomenal  commercial success makes le Carré's career not only admirable but enviable.

Mr Gordon goes on to present The Mission Song as a worthy addition to Mr le Carré's shelf.

Jenny Diski's reviews appear in the London Review of Books, and I make a point of reading them. It may be that her review of Kensington Gardens, by Rodrigo Fresán (translated by Natasha Wimmer), is difficult to follow because she has been shoehorned into a much smaller space and has too much to say. "This is one of those novels (think of Lolita, Moby-Dick, the stories of Borges and Calvino) that really do remind you of the profound sensual pleasure you had as a child when you discovered reading and began to swim in that vast ocean of books." Oops. I didn't discover the pleasure of reading until puberty hit, and while passion was as aspect of my reading from the start, I was unfamiliar with anything like "profound sensual pleasure" until the third or fourth time that I read Emma. I was not reassured by this quote from Mr Freslán's book:

the 60's are a fairy story for adults - for adults who were young during the 60's and as a result have become the best, most reckless liars in all of history.

Charles Taylor is quite as negative about Dennis Lehane's Coronado: Stories as Ada Calhoun is about Jed Rubenfeld. After citing a passage that he finds trite, Mr Taylor writes,

That's second-rate pulp philosophy, and not redeemed by the narrative drive that can make you overlook similar guff in a good thriller. And while Lehane's thrillers ... were sometimes unbelievably violent, they didn't seem ridiculous.

Tibor Fischer's review of Touchy Subjects: Stories, by Emma Donoghue, is interesting for selling Ms Donoghue's collection without making sense of it. And his frame of reference is almost arcane.

Not as purely gag-led as, say, the stories of Shalom Auslander, nor matching the oddity of, say, John Dufresne's, Donoghue's stories achieve an entertaining middle ground.

"Middle" as between what and what, exactly?

Finally, there's Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. David Bowman reviews it quite favorably. I was mystified by one small discrepancy, but on the whole I got a feel for Mr Woodrell's taut lyricism.

His Old Testament prose and blunt vision have a chilly timelessness that suggests that this novel will speak to readers as long as there are readers, and as long as violence is practiced more often than hope or language.


On the cover this week, Ian Buruma reviews Frank Rich's excoriation of the mainstream press in the Age of Shrub, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. Mr Buruma is able to bring a European perspective to the problem of our pusillanimous press.

There may be one other reason for the fumbling: the conventional methods of American journalism, market by an obsession with access and quotes. A good reporter for an American paper must get sources who sound authoritative and quotes that show both sides of a story. His or her own expertise is almost irrelevant. If the opinions of columnists count for too much in the American press, the intelligence of reporters is institutionally underused. The problem is that there are not always two sides to a story. Someone reporting on the persecution of Jews in Germany in 1938 would not have added "balance" by quoted Joseph Goebbels. And besides, as Judith Miller found out, what is the good of quotes if they are based on false information?

This is a review to clip and tuck into one's copy of The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Of Helen MacDonald, author of Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories, Mary Roach writes that she "is that rare and precious commodity: a crack historian with a taste for the bizarre."

The topic of women and the iniquities they have borne is a perennial - though not typically entertaining - topic for historians. But combine it with MacDonald's sensibilities and a parallel topic of cadavers, and this is some of the most fascinating scholarly reading since Foucault tackled sex. 

There you have it. Tom Siegfried aptly reviews two new books that argue against the likelihood that string theory will ever lead to substantial advances in the science of physics, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law, by Peter Woit and The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, by Lee Smolin.

Smolin's book is worth taking seriously as a plea for minority viewpoints. But neither he nor Woit really confront the reason ideas in physics become majority viewpoints. When John Schwarz of Caltech and his few collaborators worked alone on string theory throughout the 1970's, they wrote no books complaining about lack of resources. They worked until they found a striking result that mainstream physicists found worth pursuing. Physicists vote with their feet, which suggests that there is, after all, a way to prove string theory wrong - by finding a different theory and proving it right.

Even I could understand that. Michael Wolff's review of Daniel Golden's The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates is perhaps this week's most interesting piece.

While Golden mounts a fire-breathing, righteous attack on the culture of super-privilege, this is also a rather conventionally-minded view of education. He subscribes to the central assumptions about the Ivy League in America. The Ivies, he says, pave your way "into leadership positions in business and government" and "serve as the gateway to affluence and influence in America." If this is true, it explains why the Ivy League would turn into a marketplace. How could it not, being of such value and limited supply? But the obvious solution, to make more colleges more equal, is not the case he's arguing. Golden wants some people - people like himself - to have access to elite universities.

In short, the reviewer might have written the better book.

The premise of Kim Powers's The History of Swimming: A Memoir, is unlikely enough: a gay man searches for his lost fraternal twin, also gay. In the background: their mother committed suicide when they were seven. Reviewer Eve Conant faults Mr Powers's writing ("Powers's writing background is in television and film, and his fragmented, conversational sentences often fall flat from overuse.") but becomes too distracted by Mr Powers's story to express an overall opinion about the book. Maybe if she'd been given more space... but, no, storytelling is bad at any length.

Reviewers of Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France, by Carmen Callil, can't seem to resist storytelling, because the figure at the center of the book, Louis Darquier, is such an implausible bounder. No, I'm not going to tell you who he was, but you can find out at Wikipedia. Reviewer Christopher Caldwell makes a few motions toward refuting Ms Callil's revisionist argument (Darquier was not an aberration of Vichy France but its exemplar), but for the most part he retails more or less shocking details from Ms Callil's book.

Tim Weiner gives Sharon Weinberger's Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld a qualified good review: he thinks that Ms Weinberger ought to have written a bigger book. "By focusing on one tiny target, Weinberger has missed the big picture." This seems obtuse. Focusing on a small target may capture the picture, but in miniature, and persuade other writers to undertake more comprehensive studies of the Pentagon's penchant for fantasy physics. I haven't thought up a word yet for "not wanting the book at hand, no matter how good it is, because you can imagine another book," but, when I do, you'll be the first to know.

Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions That Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, by Bruce Clark, covers an important issue, the folly of equating ethnos with nation in the modern world. According to Belinda Cooper, Mr Clark has covered it well.

Clark refrains from casting either side as the villain in the population transfer. He cautiously points out that the exchange achieved its goals by creating clear boundaries and thus making it possible for the two countries to live side by side in relative peace. But this quietly nuanced study, whose lessons transcend the borders of Greece and Turkey, primarily illustrates the human cost extracted by the bloody project of wrenching communities apart and forming homogenous nations based on abstract concepts of belonging.

Do you remember Sarah Chayes from NPR? After the latest invasion of Afghanistan, she decided to switch jobs, and took a leadership job with Afghans for Civil Society, a promoter of civic virtue in Kandahar. Her new book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, reviewed by David Rohde, she denounces the current US-Pakistani alliance. "If in the end, the American effort in southern Afghanistan fails, this important and insightful book will explain why.

Joshua Hammer has written a book about the deadly earthquake that leveled Tokyo and its port, Yokohama, in 1923. An entrepôt along Shanghai lines, Yokohama depended on foreign relief after the quake - enough to ruffle the pride of Japanese nationalists, who did not want to be perceived as dependent upon handouts from abroad. One thing led to another, and you have Pearl Harbor. In Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire That Helped Forge the Path to World War II, Mr Hammer makes, according to reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn, "a provocative and largely persuasive case that [the disaster and its aftermath] marked a turning point in Japan's embrace of militant nationalism.

This week's silly books are The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, by Alicia Drake and reviewed by Caroline Weber; and Nicole Kidman, by David Thomson and reviewed by Lawrence Levi. Neither review begins to propose a raison d'être.

I've saved for last the funniest review in this week's Review. Joe Queenan writes up The Devil's Guide to Hollywood: The Screenwriter as God!, by Joe Eszterhas. I am no cinema insider, but I read the paper, and I know that to speak of Mr Eszterhas as "mild-mannered" and "diffident, Apollonian" is to be pulling legs. Enough of the truth seeps through, however, to convey an idea of the book.

True, since the author, now 62, regularly refers to such once-mythical but now obscure figures as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Yvonne de Carlo, Elizabeth Berkley and William Faulkner, it is not certain that the intended reader will understand all the references. Still, the overall message - everyone in Hollywood is an untrustworthy moron except me and a couple of directors I might one day work with again - comes through fairly clearly.

Marilyn Stasio, who reviews crime fiction on a generic basis for the Book Review, takes stock, in her Essay, "There's a New Bad Guy in Town," of the impact of 9/11 on "hometown mysteries."


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"Bad Faith" is a truly incredible book.

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